Clipper Staff Writer
CENTERVILLE — As the November elections draw closer, the one word on everyone’s lips is UTOPIA.
All of the candidates in Centerville’s mayoral and city council races acknowledge that accepting debt responsibility to support the network was a bad financial decision, including two former councilmembers who initially voted for it. The question dividing those running for office is what to do next – encourage current efforts to improve the network’s financial solvency, or entirely restructure UTOPIA’s business model.
“If the city had to do it over again, I’m not sure we would,” said Jack Dellastatious, one of the candidates running for city council. He was a member of the council that initially approved the decision to first join UTOPIA in 2004. “The outcome wasn’t what we expected, and it wasn’t through any fault of the city.”
Dellastatious said he loved the network, which has more than a thousand subscribers in Centerville, but acknowledged that UTOPIA was plagued by “bad management” during the early years.
Tami Fillmore, another city council candidate, said she was “disappointed” by the city’s involvement with UTOPIA but has been encouraged by recent business decisions. The most recent of these is a 78 percent price drop by service providers, with 1-gigabit-per second upload speeds as low as $64.95 per month. In June 2012, the cost was $299 a month.
“Due to positive changes made in the business plan, we are seeing a decrease in the operating expenses shortfall and expect that will continue,” Fillmore said.
Mayoral candidate Paul Cutler, a former council member who holds a masters in business management and who has previously been the city’s representative with UTOPIA, has similar views. He agrees that joining was a “bad financial decision” in hindsight, but feels that the member cities should work together to streamline operations and improve marketing to help make UTOPIA more financially sound.
“Instead of focusing on the mistakes of the past, which cannot be changed, we should focus on how we can best work together to improve the UTOPIA financial situation, and to take advantage of the great asset that we have as result of UTOPIA,” he said.
Other candidates, however, point to the fact that the network is still operating in the red as a sign that residents should still be worried.
“We’ve promised sales tax to UTOPIA, but if the economy takes another downturn we won’t have that,” said city council candidate Stephanie Ivie. “We need to be able to take care of ourselves and our citizens.”
Mayoral candidate Lawrence Wright and city council candidate George McEwan want to do that by completely revamping UTOPIA’s business plan.
“We can’t let UTOPIA stand there while it’s bleeding out,” McEwan said. “It’s got to go to the hospital and be triaged correctly.”
Wright has a doctorate degree in organization and management, and McEwan has a master’s degree in project management, and both men said that they would like to work with local business owners and experts in other member cities to take the project in hand.
“UTOPIA is built on a house of cards,” said Wright. “My task is to make it self-sufficient and not rely on cities’ operating budget to make up for shortfalls.”
Dellastatious doesn’t disapprove of the plan, but he doubts that Centerville has enough pull to make it happen.
“We only have four votes,” he said. “We might have that type of ingenuity, but we don’t have that type of power.”
Even if dramatic changes can’t be made, McEwan thinks that even a small one would make a huge difference.
“The UTOPIA name has so much negativity associated with it,” he said. “If nothing else, it’s got to be rebranded.”