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Taxpayers subsidize Google Fiber in this city with bargain land leases

By   /   August 11, 2016  /   News  /   No Comments

Photo by John Whitsett

THERE GOES THE NEIGHBORHOOD: A Google “fiber hut,” unloaded outside a San Antonio park, is among up to 40 such units to be scattered around the city. Neighbors aren’t happy about the generous terms received by the new tenant.

 

San Antonio taxpayers are subsidizing Google Fiber with a series of bargain land leases, and cleaning up after the company’s drilling mess.

The city is allowing Google to place “fiber huts” at up to 40 sites for $2,250 annually. At Haskin Park, the tech company leased 7,800 square feet, far below market value. These facilities are essentially transfer stations that allow Google to relay signals to homes and businesses on its network.

“The city took a blank master lease and said this is what we’ll sign. This deal was offered upfront. There was no negotiation,” said John Whitsett, a neighborhood activist on San Antonio’s north side.

“At $90,000 a year [for 40 sites], it won’t even cover the cost for one city staffer to handle the program,” he told Watchdog.org in an interview.

Residential parcels just 15 feet away from the fiber hut in Haskin Park are valued between $5.17 and $5.52 per square foot. The Google lease works out to 29 cents per square foot.

“It is highly unlikely that up to 40 various sites all over the city of San Antonio would have the same ‘current market values’ that resulted in the same exact annual rent of $2,250 per site with a 3 percent escalation for any site leased to Google in the San Antonio area by the city,” Whitsett said.

In recent years, appraisals on neighboring properties have risen more than 10 percent annually.

Mike Amezquita, chief appraiser for the Bexar County Appraisal District, said property comparisons can be misleading.

“I don’t believe there is any correlation between the market value of lots and what the city leases a public park for. The lease appears to facilitate a temporary use and when terminated the land will remain public parkland,” Amezquita told Watchdog.

Whitsett said he doesn’t blame Google for driving a hard bargain.

“Google is a private, for-profit entity, and I’m all for profit — but not at the expense of taxpayers. This is an absolute giveaway with no concern for the true value of property,” he said.

A Haskin Park neighborhood coalition accused the city of breaking its own park regulations. Exempted from the standard 11 p.m.-5 a.m. park closures, Google will be permitted to run trucks and service crews to its park-based huts around the clock.

The Haskin Park hut sits inside a 30-by-50-foot area, surrounded by a 10-foot-high fence.

Martha Sepeda, acting city attorney, approved the Google exemption.

“Even if the restrictions were to apply, the city does not believe that the operation of the Google hut would be a violation of the ‘annoyance’ standard,” she stated.

Photo by John Whitsett

CLEAN-UP DUTY: City workers are patching water and sewer pipes broken by Google Fiber drillers, with the costs absorbed by taxpayers.

Google Fiber’s arrival was announced with much media fanfare by then-Mayor Julian Castro, now Barack Obama’s secretary of Housing and Urban Development.

Since then, the municipally owned San Antonio Water System has been cleaning up after Google Fiber installers.

Fiber cable drillers have broken water and sewer lines in older neighborhoods, and SAWS is on the hook to repair any damages.

“All this did was empower and encourage Google’s drilling contractors to operate carelessly,” said Whitsett, whose property was among the Haskin Park residences swamped by recent line breaks.

“If I had hired a plumber, it would have cost $15,000 to fix,” he estimated. As it is, taxpayers, not Google, are footing the bill.

Google Fiber has scored sweetheart deals in other cities, as well.

Taxpayers Protection Alliance President David Williams says Google, with political connections reaching to the Obama White House, enjoys contracts that cost taxpayers millions from coast to coast.

In an article — “Is Google Getting Backdoor Corporate Welfare?” — Watchdog reported:

  • The company paid $1 for a $39 million municipal broadband network in Provo, Utah, after that system collapsed.
  • City officials in Louisville, Kentucky, gave Google Fiber easy access to utility poles, overriding objections from competitors AT&T and Time Warner Cable.

Kenric Ward reports for the Texas Bureau of Watchdog.org. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @Kenricward

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Kenric Ward was a former San Antonio-based reporter for Watchdog.org.