Fibrant the focus as City Council candidates gather at forum

Published 12:00 am Friday, October 21, 2011

By Emily Ford
SALISBURY — Discussion about Fibrant dominated a candidate forum Thursday at Catawba College featuring nine candidates for Salisbury City Council.
Five incumbents and four challengers vying for five seats also answered questions about the Rowan-Salisbury Schools central office, public safety, a gay Pride event, economic development, the city-county relationship and more.
All candidates but one said the city must make Fibrant successful, now that it’s here. Challenger Blake Jarman opposes the city-owned broadband utility because residents didn’t get to vote on it, and TV subscribers can pay to watch pornography.
Some incumbents sounded frustrated by the negative tone of Fibrant questions, which were chosen by moderator Dr. Michael Bitzer from those submitted by Salisbury Post readers.
When asked about his concerns regarding Fibrant, Councilman Brian Miller said he’s concerned people won’t allow the service to reach its potential because they will give up on it too soon. The business plan calls for Fibrant to be cash-flow positive after four years, in 2014.
“We’re only 10 months in,” said Miller, who wasn’t a councilman when Fibrant started. “We have plenty of time to get where we want to be.”
Buying Internet, cable TV and phone service from Fibrant is like supporting a local merchant, he said.
Councilman Paul Woodson said the city will bring in someone from the telecommunications industry to run the service, which he said will lower the tax rate just as gas and electric utilities have done in Kinston.
Fibrant currently has an interim director after former broadband director Mike Crowell took early retirement and former marketing director Len Clark was laid off.
“We tried to run it in government, and it hasn’t worked,” Woodson said. “We’re not going to bury our heads in the sand. We’re going to do something different.”
When asked what she would do if Fibrant fails to generate the revenue needed to pay back $33.56 million borrowed to build the network, Mayor Susan Kluttz said raising taxes would be the “very last option.”
Kluttz said council members knew they were taking a risk on broadband and understood what could happen if Fibrant failed. However, experts, consultants and business leaders all encouraged the city to build the fiber-optic network, Kluttz said, which she maintained will be successful.
Mayor Pro Tem Maggie Blackwell refused to second-guess council members who approved Fibrant a year before she was elected.
“I will take the high road,” she said.
Blackwell said City Council is committed to working together to make Fibrant a success, adding “we can’t unborrow the money.”
Councilman William “Pete” Kennedy took credit for suggesting fiber-to-the-home for Salisbury six years ago after learning about other government-run broadband operations.
“Cities across the country are looking at broadband as a job-making utility,” he said.
Challengers Rip Kersey and Ben Lynch both want an independent board of directors to oversee Fibrant.
The city’s service is not competitive with private providers, Lynch said, and some subscribers he’s talked to are not satisfied. While City Council looks at Fibrant from a larger perspective, a board would work closely with the utility on marketing, pricing and viability, he said.
“Failure is not an option,” Lynch said.
Kersey warned the city not to “chase technology,” pointing to the recent bankruptcy of Harrisburg, Pa., after repeated technology upgrades to a waste incinerator during a recession put the city out of business.
“We’ve got to make what we have in the ground work,” Kersey said.
Challenger Dale Stephens said Fibrant can’t survive depending on Salisbury subscribers alone. State law allows the city to sell Fibrant throughout Rowan County, but town boards or county commissioners must approve. Salisbury has no immediate plans to expand Fibrant beyond the city limits
The city administration is fixated on Fibrant, Stephens said, and other municipal services are suffering as a result.
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Kluttz defended her decision to issue a mayoral proclamation before the first gay Pride event in Salisbury. Questioning whether critics had actually read the proclamation, Kluttz said it called for an end to discrimination based on sexual orientation.
The event drew dozens of protestors and hundreds of participants. “I am sorry that people were offended on both sides,” she said. “As far as the proclamation, I do not apologize for that.”
Kluttz said she represents a diverse community.
“I represent them, I do not judge them,” she said. “I will do anything I can to keep discrimination from happening.”
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Many candidates embraced a proposal to build a central office for the school system in downtown Salisbury on city land.
“We need you and want you in the south end of our city,” Woodson said.
Miller said he’s ready to partner with the county and school system to make it happen. Kennedy said the central office would create buzz and jobs downtown, and Blackwell said the location would help school system employees support local businesses while running errands and dining.
Lynch said he can’t endorse the proposal until he knows more about how it would affect parking. Stephens opposed the plan.
“We need to use what we’ve got instead of trying to build new all the time,” Stephens said.
Jarman said the arrangement won’t work unless the city improves its relationship with the county.
All candidates asked about upgraded radios for Salisbury firefighters said they support the new technology, demonstrated at Tuesday’s City Council meeting by Fire Chief Bob Parnell.
But Lynch said he will have to wait and watch the demonstration when it airs on public access TV. He couldn’t attend the 4 p.m. meeting, he said, because he was at work.
Lynch wants City Council to move one of its two monthly meetings to 7 p.m. so working people can participate.
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Candidates took the opportunity to pitch their platforms, credentials and websites during the forum. Even Kennedy, the longest-serving councilman with nine terms, said supporters now can follow his campaign on Facebook and Twitter.
One newcomer joked about his inexperience with the political process.
“Vote for me,” Kersey said. “I keep forgetting to ask people to do that.”
Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.