AT&T , county continue permitting discussions

Robert Smith

An AT&T manager met Monday with Osage County commissioners and assured them the company will submit written permit requests before beginning projects that involve placing utility lines in the county right of way.

Paul DeSpain of AT&T told county commissioners he had sent an email message a couple of weeks ago to company personnel who work for him, giving them a copy of the permit request form and instructing them to use it.

“We’re definitely on board with that,” DeSpain said. His appearance before the commissioners was the latest element in an ongoing effort by county commissioners to make sure utility companies honor the county’s process for documenting what goes into the right of way.

District 2 Commissioner Kevin Paslay has played the leading role in pursuing the issue, to include seeking legal advice from the district attorney’s office. Paslay opened the discussion Monday, sharing stories about unsatisfactory encounters in the past with representatives of AT&T, or with persons he understood to be working with subcontractors for that company.

Paslay has couched his concern both in terms of looking out for the safety of county workers, and in terms of trying not to damage lines that utility companies have placed in the right of way.

“Our story is we don’t want to destroy anybody’s utilities,” Paslay said Monday. “I would like, from this day forward, to start a negotiation to work with AT&T on anything.”

While the commissioners and DeSpain took an amicable approach in regard to the submission of permit requests, there were other points of concern that were aired without being resolved.

District 1 Commissioner Randall Jones asked DeSpain why the company chooses to run utility lines through the public right of way, as opposed to private property.

DeSpain said it can be difficult to obtain private right-of-way access in Osage County. He also said that, from a utility company point of view, part of the reason to have a public right of way is so that utility companies can provide service to their customers. He said the vast majority of work that AT&T currently does in Osage County is based on customer demand.

Jones said allowing utility companies, as a group, to run their lines through the county’s right of way ends up costing the county large sums of money. He was referring to the county paying to reimburse utility companies when it undertakes projects that result in the removal of utility lines from the right of way.

“It’s costing us millions of dollars,” Jones said. He clarified that he was addressing a problem the county has with utility companies generally, and not specifically with AT&T.

In response to a comment by Jones about potential fees and fines, DeSpain clarified he was not there to discuss legal issues, but he was pretty sure AT&T would take a dim view of paying either sort of assessment.

District 3 Commissioner Darren McKinney pointed out that the county has a right to know what utility lines are being placed in its right of way. DeSpain agreed with him, but said some things that have been placed in the county right of way go back decades.

Paslay expressed a desire to learn more about lines that have already been placed, but for which the county has no documentation.

Jerry Butterbaugh, an Osage County resident with personal experience in the pipeline and construction businesses, commented that utility companies generally should be required to provide Osage County detailed information about where utility lines have been placed for the benefit of businesses that want to bring development to the area and need accurate information before they undertake their projects.

Butterbaugh argued that AT&T should be able to give Osage County an accounting, on an as-built basis, for everything it has put in the ground in the county right of way. He indicated that he thinks county officials have taken an unnecessarily deferential approach to contractors who have failed to obtain proper permit paperwork. Contractors know they’re not supposed to undertake any work on a job until all the permits are acquired, he said.