Incumbents defend, challengers attack Fibrant during forum
SALISBURY — In the third City Council candidate forum Tuesday night, incumbents offered a vigorous defense of their leadership, while challengers criticized Fibrant and other decisions.
Candidates gathered at Catawba College for the forum moderated by Dr. Michael Bitzer, who used questions submitted by readers of the Salisbury Post.
The five incumbents — Mayor Paul Woodson, Mayor Pro Tem Maggie Blackwell and council members Karen Alexander, Pete Kennedy and Brian Miller — touted accomplishments like doubling the city’s fund balance while holding the line on taxes and water rate increases. They campaigned as a team, often referring to and complimenting each other.
The challengers — William Peoples, Rick Honeycutt and Blake Jarman — turned up the heat. Complaints included too few police officers, too much crime and the ongoing feud between City Council and the Rowan County Board of Commissioners.
Honeycutt said council members had been “bragging” about Fibrant’s $7,700 profit in the first three months of this fiscal year and called the small amount “unacceptable.”
“We have to find ways to make Fibrant profitable, and I mean profitable in a big way,” Honeycutt said.
The city should lower the subscription price to undercut Time Warner Cable and AT&T and increase the installation speed, he said.
Blackwell took issue with Honeycutt’s accusation of bragging, saying city leaders specifically said it was not time to celebrate when they discussed the small profit, Fibrant’s first.
Now that Fibrant has turned the curve, “it’s time to become the little town that could, the tech town of North Carolina,” said Blackwell, who suggested hosting app competitions at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte for Fibrant for everything from public transit to take-out restaurants. The city can use Fibrant to lure young people into town and make Salisbury more vital, she said.
Salisbury has a $70 million investment in Fibrant, which launched during the worst economic climate since the Great Depression, Alexander said. Turning a profit in that context is reason for excitement, she said.
“We’re in the black folks, and that’s huge,” Alexander said.
Now that the city has stabilized Fibrant, Salisbury can use the utility to attract new businesses and jobs, she said.
Jarman, who has run on an anti-Fibrant platform during his three attempts to win a seat on City Council, continued to criticize the high-speed broadband utility but said he would change his tune if elected.
“I will make Fibrant sound really, really great and hopefully, everyone will sign up for it,” said Jarman, who suggested lowering the price for the first two years of a subscription.
Whether Salisbury needs more police officers drew contrasts between candidates.
Honeycutt has taken a no-tax-increase pledge but also says he would hire more police officers by cutting waste in the city budget. Woodson said Salisbury has 2.7 police officers for every 1,000 residents, more than the state average of 1.8 officers per 1,000 residents.
It costs about $65,000 to put one officer on the street, including training, a car and equipment, Woodson said. Rather than hiring more officers, the city this year hired more clerical help to complete paperwork so officers could get back on the street, he said.
To hire more officers, City Council would have to cut the city budget elsewhere, Miller said.
“It’s a constant balancing act,” he said.
Miller and Blackwell said they would rely on Police Chief Rory Collins to determine whether the city needs more police officers.
Peoples said Salisbury has an image problem and not enough manpower on the police force. Residents are afraid to walk in some areas of town due to crime, he said.
Peoples said he would consider raising taxes to hire more police officers, as well as boosting the salary for police recruits to help retain them, rather than training and then losing them to other communities.
“I will never tell you we won’t raise taxes,” he said.
New businesses are hesitant to come to a city with shootings in broad daylight, Peoples said, and Salisbury’s economy won’t thrive until people feel safe.
Kennedy said people are reading about more arrests, not more crime, because police officers are doing their job and Collins established a second Police Interdiction Team without increasing his budget.
Talk turned to neighborhoods when Bitzer posed a question suggesting that City Council members don’t know what it’s like to live in public housing projects.
Peoples agreed, saying he has brought issues like a lack of street lights on Brenner Avenue to the council’s attention for years because many members do not go into poor neighborhoods or understand their problems. If visitors during OctoberTour wandered off the beaten path, “what would they think about Salisbury then?” he asked.
Kennedy staunchly defended the city’s record for helping neighborhoods and pointed to the $170,000 West End Transformation Plan, a broad partnership between the city and other organizations to plan for the renovation of the old Duncan and Price schools, build new sidewalks, create mixed-use development and rebuild Civic Park Apartments.
The city has won tax credits to help finance the new Civic Park and is looking for funding to implement other areas of the plan.
“This City Council has not been sitting idle,” Kennedy said. “We have been working for our citizens.”
Blackwell gave a long list of neighborhoods and public housing projects she’s visited and said she takes calls from people in every part of the city who have a problem and need help.
Miller said he drives by the neighborhoods Peoples was referring to but said the city can’t take all of the responsibility for making improvements. That’s up to residents as well, Miller said.
Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.
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