Commission Candidates Cool to City Broadband

When Justin Troller leaves the City Commission at the end of the year, it’s unlikely his replacement will have the same zeal for a city broadband utility that he has. At a forum today, three of the four candidates running for the at-large seat he is vacating shied away from getting the city into the Internet business; a fourth said he is willing to look into it. The article continues after the video of the fourm:

The four candidates — Chad McLeod, Carole Philipson, Ricky Shirah and Shandale Terrell — spoke at today’s meeting of the Lakeland Kiwanis Club and answered questions posed by club members.

The candidates for the other City Commission race on the Nov. 5 ballot — Jiwa Farrell and Bill Read — speak to the club in two weeks.

On the broadband question, only Shirah said he is inclined to pursue a proposal to launch a municipal utility. Candidate positions, in the order they answered the question:

Philipson said the business model is built on assumptions that a large number of residents and businesses will subscribe, and even then it will take an estimated 10 years to reach break-even. With 97 percent of Lakeland residents served by Charter Communications’ Spectrum or Frontier FIOS, she fears that the city would have to cut rates and extend the break-even point even longer.

Shirah sees it as a path toward replacing the millions of dollars in revenue the city stands to lose when its lease with Lakeland Regional Health ends in 2040. “I hate to use the word hate, but I hate the service that I have, and I would be willing to look into it further if it can be revenue for the city of Lakeland, I believe I would be for it. At least try,” he said.

Terrell started out by saying broadband should be implemented “step by step,” but then said “If the funds are there for the Internet project, I would say we need to do it; but otherwise if the funds are not there, if we can’t receive federal funds for the city of Lakeland to build the product, we shouldn’t do it until we have those funds available.” City staff has said a broadband plan would require either a temporary increase in property taxes or a special assessment, and Terrell said after the meeting that he would not support raising taxes for broadband.

McLeod cautioned against putting tax dollars at risk. “I’m concerned about especially competition in the long term with the private sector, what that looks like. I don’t think cities are set up to compete with the telecom industry over the long term, especially as we learn about the changing technology.”

All four candidates said they support the city’s downtown “catalyst plan” that has created a roadmap for development and set aside $2 million to help companies who help build that vision.

Candidates differed somewhat on a question that was relayed to the Kiwanis Club by Mayor Bill Mutz: “Should the city fund, and if so what role does the city have in housing displaced, work-capable individuals.”

McLeod said non-profit organizations should be empowered to do what they do best; the city’s role should be providing leadership and collaborating with those groups, he said.

Philipson said the city has funded two full-time case workers for the past year who were employed by Tri County and have found housing for nearly 180 homeless people. “That effort should be moved back to social service agencies and not continue to be funded by the city.”

Shirah told a story about assisting a homeless woman and said he supports the mayor’s efforts to find affordable housing and jobs for the homeless.

Terrell gave a response he said would be brief : “If funds are there, we should support affordable housing for the homeless”

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