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Council talks Fibrant at capital improvement plan workshop

By Amanda Raymond
amanda.raymond@salisburypost.com

SALISBURY — The Salisbury City Council and city staff talked about getting Fibrant on track at a capital improvement plan workshop on Friday.

The city is using the CIP to plan the timing and financing of capital improvements over a 10-year period. The plan is non-binding and changeable.

The CIP includes funding for projects like the Downtown Incentive Program, Dixonville Cemetery, Newsome Road extension and Fire Stations 3 and 6.

One of the most pressing projects the council and staff discussed was Fibrant, the city’s fiber optic network.

There are three options for how much of the general fund is put into the Fibrant fund.

In option A, the contribution from the general fund is at a constant $3.1 million. But Bailey said he thinks the city can do better and go with either option B or C, which would decrease contributions from the general fund over the 10 years.

In option B, charges could decrease to $1.8 million by year 10 and in option C the charges would decrease to $1 million by year 10.

The city has a contract with an outside company to help develop a 10-year CIP for the Fibrant fund. Bailey said they will begin work at the end of November.

Bailey said the company will also help the city determine how Fibrant will be handled in the future.

Bailey said the city can continue operating Fibrant in the same way it has been but increase efficiency and improve on sales and marketing, or they can pursue a public-private partnership.

“The industry trend is to look at public-private partnerships in this area,” he said.

Bailey said the agency plans to have its assessment done by the end of the calendar year, and if the city decides to pursue a public-private partnership, they may start advertising for partners by the end of the fiscal year.

Later in the meeting, Evans Ballard, Fibrant’s interim director, discussed the current state of Fibrant.

He said when he took over the position, there were “no real usable metrics in place. If they were there, they weren’t being utilized.”

Ballard said he has been focusing on sales and inviting community partners to be part of the conversation who have not had a say before.

He said the city will eventually have to talk about replacing capital assets.

“We do not have any funding mechanism in place to replace very critically important capital assets,” he said.

Ballard said there have been parts of Fibrant that were executed in a “haphazard” way, and they will have to be more strategic moving forward.

“My whole thing is crisp execution and if we don’t have crisp execution in the basics, we’re toast,” he said.

Dale Waters, IT manager, mentioned that the mechanism used to get video into the system and out to customers has been at its end-of-life phase for several years. The cost to replace the system will be about $70,000.

“We’re just sitting back waiting for it to break,” he said.

He said other platforms are starting to fail and there is no replacement schedule to deal with them.

Mayor Pro Tem Maggie Blackwell asked Bailey why those funds weren’t in the budget.

“We didn’t have good information on the Fibrant fund at the time the budget was adopted,” he said.

Blackwell said if the city expects partners to invest in Fibrant, its assets have to be in top shape.

“When we look to invest in a property, the first thing we look at is the HVAC, the roof, the plumbing, the electrical. If we’re going to have to replace all those, we don’t invest. And if we are courting partners, we have to be up. We can’t be hanging on by a thread,” she said.

Bailey said with Ballard and the agency coming in, he is confident that they can improve Fibrant’s performance.

Council member Brian Miller asked if there was anything that could break in the near future that could shut down the system.

Waters said there was nothing that critical, but there are parts of the system that have no backups in place if they are damaged or destroyed.

Bailey said they would find money in the budget to replace assets if necessary. He also said he would talk to Ballard about the possibility of other cities providing back-up services if something happened to disrupt Fibrant’s services.

The council and staff also talked about possible marketing directions for Fibrant.

Council member David Post said organizations may choose to partner with Fibrant because they see a good marketing opportunity.

“We’re not going to grow our way out of this by cutting expenses. We’re only going to grow our way out of this through marketing,” he said.

Mayor Karen Alexander asked if marketing should focus more on Internet services and Ballard said he is working with the Communications Department to do just that.

Bailey said he will present an update on where the city is with Fibrant at the December council meeting and continue to present information monthly.

Other tweaks to the CIP included adding funds for the maintenance of “Crossroads – Past into Present,” the mural on West Fisher Street, a suggestion by Post.

Alexander suggested adding it to the city’s grant budget.

Miller asked that the downtown infrastructure improvement project be placed on the CIP to make sure the project is addressed at some point.

Council member Kenny Hardin asked for more detail as to what the funds for the West End Transformation will be used for. At a previous meeting, Hardin said he did not want all the money going towards physical improvement projects. He suggested that some of the funds go towards vocational training for the neighborhood.

Contact reporter Amanda Raymond at 704-797-4222.

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