State panel backs expanded Fibrant service area

Published 12:00 am Thursday, April 28, 2011

By Emily Ford
RALEIGH — Salisbury officials on Wednesday praised N.C. Sen. Andrew Brock for securing an expanded service area for Fibrant in the Senate Finance Committee.
But just a few hours before Brock shepherded the proposal, which allows Salisbury to sell Fibrant outside the city limits with stipulations, the Republican who represents Rowan and Davie counties had called Fibrant a “boondoggle” on News Radio 1490 WSTP.
A variety of officials spontaneously debated Fibrant Wednesday morning on the radio talk show, including Assistant City Manager Doug Paris and Carl Ford, vice chairman of the Rowan County Board of Commissioners.
After hearing Brock’s comments, City Manager David Treme drove to the radio station and went on air to defend Salisbury’s telecommunications utility.
Ultimately, a compromise suggested to Brock after the radio debate by Ford and Rowan County Commissioner Jim Sides convinced Brock to support the Fibrant expansion.
The Senate Finance Committee overwhelmingly approved Brock’s amendment to House Bill 129, or “Level Playing Field,” which allows Salisbury to sell Fibrant outside the city limits as long as town aldermen, school board members or the Rowan County Board of Commissioners approve.
“This will give the people a voice,” Brock said after the committee met.
He has criticized the city for not allowing residents to vote before borrowing $33.56 million in 2008 to build the fiber-to-the-home network. State law does not require a referendum.
Brock had planned to ask the Senate Finance Committee to restrict Fibrant to the city limits of Salisbury.
But he had a change of heart Wednesday morning after Sides and Ford suggested the compromise, which allows Salisbury to offer Fibrant in any town in Rowan County where the town board has approved an interlocal agreement with Salisbury.
The amendment also says county commissioners must approve Fibrant expansion to any county-owned government building, and the Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education must give a nod for any Fibrant service extension into public schools.
Salisbury officials supported the amendment, which broadens the Fibrant service area from only four towns in an earlier version of bill — Spencer, East Spencer, Rockwell and Granite Quarry.
The amendment spells out what the city already intended, Treme said. Salisbury would have sought approval from towns, the school board and county commissioners before extending fiber optic lines, Treme said.
“But if they need it in writing, we are happy to do that,” Mayor Susan Kluttz said.
Kluttz said she wasn’t aware of county commissioners’ concerns about Fibrant until Ford called her Wednesday morning to apologize for remarks he made on the radio that had offended Kluttz.
Once the city understood the county’s concerns, and commissioners understood the city’s intentions, they struck the compromise, she said.
“It’s all about communication,” Kluttz said.
Commissioner Sides said Ford called him Wednesday morning to see if he would support an expanded service area for Fibrant. Sides said he understood from Ford that city officials were seeking his approval.
“I made the statement that I don’t care where they go as long as somebody else pays for it,” Sides said.
Sides said he doesn’t know why city leaders would want his approval.
“They certainly haven’t asked my opinion before,” he said. “I have no idea why they want it now.”
When Brock introduced his amendment to the committee Wednesday, he credited who he called two of the most conservative Rowan County commissioners — Ford and Sides — for the idea.
Sides later told the Post he believes the city was wrong to get into the broadband business in the first place and questions how Salisbury financed the project.
House Bill 129 could reach the Senate floor as early as next week. Salisbury’s exemption from new restrictions on city-owned broadband systems in the proposed law remains intact.
Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.