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January 17, 2020

1/14/2020 7:30:00 AM
County, Frontier at odds over severed telecom line
Fred Williston
Special to the Lakeland Times

The Oneida County Public Works Committee was advised last Thursday of an ongoing financial dispute between the county and telecom provider Frontier Communications over a severed telecom line.

In June of 2018, a contractor's crew hired by the county was replacing culverts under County Trunk Highway A near Three Lakes when the crew "hit an underground utility; a line," Oneida County Highway Commissioner Bruce Stefonek to the committee. The line was a 24-gauge copper cable belonging to Frontier.

It is standard operating procedure - and a legal requirement - for any landowner (including the county) to contact utility providers and have them mark the locations of their underground cables, conduits, or pipes before the landowner begins excavations on the property in question.

"Wasn't a request made of Frontier to mark this?" committee chairman Robb Jensen asked Stefonek. "Did we request Frontier to mark this before we did our work?"

"Yes," Stefonek replied. "They have, I believe, 72 hours - three days - to locate ... If they don't locate, we re-apply; we call again. They're known for not marking their lines."

Stefonek described a frustrating pattern of non-compliance from Frontier.

"We contacted Frontier 18 months ahead of time," he said. "We contacted them again 12 months ahead of time. We contacted them a month ahead of time. At the very end, we contacted them every day, and sometimes even three or four times a day."

By the time the culverts were scheduled to be replaced, Frontier had still not marked its lines, according to Stefonek.

"The contractor threw up his hands," Stefonek said, and the crew began excavations without any indication of where the underground utilities were located.

According to documents provided to the county from Frontier, a proper request had been made by the county for line locations and markings. Doing so was the responsibility of a Frontier subcontractor, but the work was never performed.

The county's contractor "hit a line," Stefonek said, "and he pulled all of his men off (the job site)."

"And there is a cost to that," he said. "(The contractor) could have charged us in the $20,000-$30,000 range, but they only charged us $2,627.70."

"He didn't pull the equipment, thank God," supervisor Ted Cushing said.

"Right," Stefonek replied. "Or else this would have ended up costing us a lot more."

More than a year after the incident, Frontier sent the county a bill for $1,134.60 for the cost of re-splicing the severed line.

After that, Stefonek sent Frontier a bill for the $2,627.70 to cover the cost of the contractor's pull-out.

"Frontier did not recognize our bill," Stefonek said.

In the meantime, Frontier turned over its bill of $1,134.60 to a collection agency to pursue payment from Oneida County.

"I took the stance that 'Well, take it out of what you owe us,'" Stefonek said. "Because their amount that they owe us was more than this bill ... I keep instructing them to take it out of their portion of what they owe us. To date, they have not."

"They don't have the ability to figure that out," Cushing interjected. "It's too simple."

"I'm going to forward this to (Oneida County Corporation Counsel) Brian Desmond, and I wanted this committee to be aware of it," Stefonek told the supervisors.

"So, say to Brian, 'Look: we requested a locate. They didn't do it, and we had to get the job done,'" Jensen said. "Because we pulled out, and if there's estimated costs from that pull-out, is Frontier liable for those costs? ... I guess you have to ask Brian, in his judgment, is it best to pay the $1,134.60?"

"I'm afraid if we pay them, we're never going to see the rest of that money," Stefonek said. "We have to start action."

Cushing suggested paying the $1,134.60 to the telecom provider "and then send the collection agency people after Frontier for the rest."

"I have an issue with this because Frontier is this far from going under," he said, moving his index finger and thumb to within an inch of each other. "They're ready to go under."

"According to this report (from Frontier), it wasn't marked," supervisor Mike Timmons said. "Why should we even pay this if Frontier's own report says it wasn't marked? ... If they didn't mark it, it's their problem."

"I don't think we owe them this money," supervisor Scott Holewinski said. "We shouldn't pay this bill; they're the ones that are screwing up all the time."

Stefonek hopes to get an opinion from Desmond in the near future and will take action based on the attorney's recommendation.

The Lakeland Times contacted Frontier's Claims Management department in Oklahoma City for comment on the dispute, but as of press time, the company did not reply.

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