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Salisbury City Council discusses Fibrant costs

By Amanda Raymond

amanda.raymond@salisburypost.com

Before revenues, the cost of Fibrant is about $3.7 million for the first half of the current fiscal year, according to the mid-year financial update presented to the Salisbury City Council on Tuesday.

The presentation included numbers from the first six months of fiscal year 2016.

The combined cost of Fibrant, a fiber-optic network provided and managed by the city, in the general fund and general fund capital reserve was about $1.8 million. The cost in the enterprise fund was about $1.9 million, bringing Fibrant’s cost to about $3.7 million.

The enterprise fund costs were offset by about $2.9 million in revenues from subscribers, so the amount that taxpayers are responsible for are the expenditures in the general fund/general fund capital reserve fund, which was about $1.8 million.

The variance between the actual amount paid and the budgeted amount for the debt service part of the enterprise fund was about $2.5 million. Teresa Harris, finance director, said they expect to pay that out completely during this half of the fiscal year.

Fibrant was available for customers in 2010. It recently made Salisbury the first 10 gigabit city in the country.

City Manager Lane Bailey said the financial numbers were not where city officials want them to be, but a strong fund balance of $13.6 million should help.

“Because of the strong general fund that we have, we’re able to help Fibrant grow and become what we hoped it would be,” he said.

Councilman David Post said he asked Bailey if the deficit was reflective of the last five years that Fibrant has been operating, and Post said Bailey told him it was.

However, to say that there has been $3.7 million in costs per six months for the last five years would be inaccurate, Councilman Brian Miller said. He said about two years ago, the council asked the former city manager to stop inter-fund transfers and cut down on shared expenses.

“You had folks who were technicians in the general fund and you had folks that were technicians in the Fibrant fund and we were paying two groups of people to do the same thing,” he said.

Harris, the city finance director, later said the city hasn’t paid out $3.7 million every six months the past five years for Fibrant, but she added that she does not know how much the costs were because the city did not start tracking until the changes that occurred two years ago.

Post said that it is important for Fibrant to become self-sustaining because it is taking funds away from other projects.

“I think the most important thing that the city manager said … is we have to get to the point, hopefully, that Fibrant is self-supporting because this is taking dollars away from other needs,” he said.

Post said the city needs to develop a strategy for Fibrant and treat it more like a business.

“Fibrant is not like the police department or the water/sewer. Water/sewer doesn’t have a competitor out there. The police department does not have a competitor out there,” he said. “Fibrant is a business that has competitors out there, and those competitors are organized like normal businesses.”

Although Post said Kent Winrich, director of Broadband and Infrastructure, is doing a good job, “we don’t have some of those other pieces to compete with companies that have billion dollar pockets.” Those pieces include having people in charge of areas like administration, production and marketing.

Miller said along with growing the residential customer base, the city needs to increase the number of business customers.

“Our best margin is in that business services sector,” he said.

Winrich agreed.

“The reason … that the business is so important is that one business can be the equivalent of five to 25 residential customers as far as revenue,” he said later in the meeting.

Winrich said Fibrant is attracting more high-end businesses and has been adding about 10 new business customers a week. Businesses have also been upgrading their services.

“The business part is really just the low hanging fruit right now,” Winrich said.

Winrich said that there are 3,562 Fibrant customers as of last week. He also said revenue increased by $250,000 compared to the same time last year.

“One big note is that Fibrant has not been down since 2012,” he said.

Mayor Karen Alexander said Fibrant was the vision of the city’s former leaders to create economic development opportunities for current and future generations. She said it was up to the current leadership to make the vision a reality.

“This Fibrant broadband in our community is like gold in our hills, and all we have to do is mine it,” she said. “And that’s our job as leaders, is to figure out how to mine it.”

Contact reporter Amanda Raymond at 704-797-4222.

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