By Emily Ford
SALISBURY — Steve Mensing wanted Fibrant.
When Salisbury was preparing to roll out the publicly owned broadband utility, Mensing said he called to sign up. An author and online counselor, Mensing said he was “gung-ho.”
He heard nothing from the city.
He called Fibrant again, he said, then sent a couple of emails. Still nothing.
But Mensing said he changed his mind when the city unveiled the rates for Fibrant. The prices were similar to, and in some cases higher than, rates for private competitors.
What he thought was going to be a community telecom turned out to be just another over-priced Internet provider, Mensing said.
His dissatisfaction caused him to take a closer look at the utility.
In another part of the city, John Bare also had taken an interest in Fibrant. Bare, a radio frequency technician and Salisbury native, was becoming increasingly outspoken in his opposition to the venture on the Salisbury Post’s website.
Bare’s biggest beef was that the city risked taxpayer dollars by getting into an industry he says was already saturated by private companies. The city did not hold a referendum before borrowing $35.86 million in 2008 to build Fibrant.
If the city can’t make the debt payments, which jump to $3 million annually in 2013 and
continue until 2029, taxpayers could foot the bill with a higher property tax rate.
The debt burden will prevent the city from trimming Fibrant’s rates, Mensing said.
“They have to compete with these private providers with a millstone around their neck until 2029,” he said.
City leaders insist they will not use tax dollars to pay for Fibrant.
In an anonymous comment on the Post website, Bare asked Fibrant critics to come forward and meet at the library.
Mensing was the only one who showed up.
Since then, the two men on opposite sides of the political spectrum — Mensing liberal and Bare conservative — have led the public fight against Fibrant, which just completed its first year of operation.
They launched a website, www.anti-fibrant.com. From that platform, they criticize everything from fiber-optic technology, which Mensing says will be obsolete before the city pays off the debt, to a lack of transparency surrounding Fibrant’s construction and funding, which Bare says has led to distrust of local government.
Bare even testified on behalf of Time Warner Cable during a hearing in Raleigh when Salisbury was fighting a proposed state law that would have choked municipal broadband systems.
Bare, who spent four years in the Air Force and likes to quote C.S. Lewis, bought the anti-Fibrant domain name for $11. He pays $2 a month for the website.
His wife, Marina Bare, an artist and regular fixture at City Council meetings, writes a blog on the website featuring video clips from public meetings and her caricatures of elected officials.
Marina Bare’s father serves as webmaster. Mensing, who moved to Salisbury in 2008 and lives in the historic district with his wife, does most of the writing.
Sixteen people have been approved to contribute to the site’s forum. Most are anonymous.
“The goal is to get people interested,” Bare said.
The campaign has not harmed Fibrant, interim City Manager Doug Paris said.
“This is a democracy, and it’s a matter of freedom of speech,” Paris said. “People should be allowed to air their views in a public forum.
“Folks are not always going to agree with government’s action.”
Bare and Mensing said they made several public information requests for documents related to Fibrant but stopped because the results were futile. The city flooded them with indecipherable information, Bare said.
The city has fulfilled every public records request it has received, Paris said, and City Council has made Fibrant more transparent by requiring staff to prepare quarterly financial reports.
The reports, which include revenues and expenditures for every major city fund, go into even more detail about Fibrant, showing revenue and subscriber numbers, he said.
Unsatisfied, Mensing and Bare regularly call for an independent forensic audit of Fibrant.
Fibrant must go from 1,700 customers to about 4,500 by 2014 to become self-sufficient. Until then, some $7.5 million in loans from other city funds will help pay to operate Fibrant.
Bare said he doesn’t think the city can meet its goal.
“They have tapped the people who are patriotic,” he said. “I don’t think they will get much more.”
Bare said he’s talked to several people who are waiting for their one-year contract to expire, so they can drop Fibrant without paying the $360 disconnection fee.
He would not provide their names.
“It was a mistake,” Bare said. “Technology is one of the most risky businesses you can get into because it changes too quickly.”
Private industry, not government, should take that risk, Bare said.
City officials said they begged private providers to construct a fiber-to-the-home network in Salisbury so everyone would have access to high-speed broadband. Big cable declined, so the city built the network itself to give Salisbury a competitive edge in education, economic development and public safety.
“It was a combination of the victim argument and the build-it-and-they-will-come argument,” Bare said.
By constructing the system, the city said businesses would relocate to Salisbury to take advantage of the fastest Internet speeds in the state. So far, that has not happened.
Fibrant has 122 commercial customers, fewer than projected. Most were here before Fibrant.
But supporters say it’s too early to write Fibrant off as an economic development tool.
“Now that the system is established and running well, we are going after companies for which Fibrant would be a main driver,” said Robert Van Geons, executive director for RowanWorks Economic Development. “Companies need to see a successful track record for the product before making a large commitment of resources.
“We’ve got that now, and are sharing that message.”
Few people who oppose Fibrant will speak publicly because of social consequences in a small city, Bare said.
“I’m willing to come out and present my face because I don’t care what people think,” he said.
Bare acknowledged he’s never tried to meet with any city official to discuss his concerns. He said he doesn’t trust them.
During the election, Bare carried his opposition a step further and founded a political action committee. He and Mensing distributed flyers throughout the city decrying Salisbury’s debt and urging people to vote for candidates who were challenging City Council incumbents.
All five incumbents were re-elected, a signal that many voters approve of Fibrant.
Bare now calls his political effort “fruitless.” Former Mayor Susan Kluttz lost the top spot by 35 votes, which Bare said was a “small consolation prize.”
Mensing said he doesn’t hate Fibrant or the city but worries about the long-term consequences of taking on so much debt.
Bare said he wouldn’t care as much about Fibrant during what he calls “fat, dumb, happy times.”
But with the new economic reality, the stakes are higher, he said.
At times, he seems like an unwilling participant in an effort he started and now can’t quit. After working 60- or 70-hour weeks, he goes home and turns his attention to anti-fibrant.com.
“I’ve been sucked into a realm that most people don’t want to be involved in,” Bare said. “It’s interesting on certain levels, but it’s annoying as hell.”
Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264..
By Emily Ford