On Feb. 24, Asheville City Council did more than listen to three hours of questions, comments and presentations about the proposed cable-franchise contract with InterMedia. They spent an hour approving the consent agenda (which usually takes about 30 seconds), and two hours on other actions. Here are the highlights.
Can’t do much about cable rates
Expressing reluctance, Council members approved InterMedia’s request for an increase in basic-cable rates.
“Are you saying we have no choice?” Council member Barbara Field asked Assistant City Attorney Patsy Meldrum.
“Yes,” Meldrum replied. Then, noticing the uncomfortable silence that followed, she remarked that Council was perhaps stunned by the brevity of her answer.
Last March, InterMedia asked to raise the minimum, basic-tier cable rate to $10.91 — nearly a 50-cent increase. According to Meldrum, the city can do little more than check to make sure InterMedia followed a complicated Federal Communications Commission formula used to establish such rate increases.
Three times in the past year, InterMedia has submitted the request to the city; three times, the city’s cable consultant, Jean Rice, has found errors in the company’s calculations.
But all of them have since been corrected, Meldrum reported. She said Council can set a ceiling of $10.97 on monthly basic rates — until InterMedia asks for its next annual increase sometime in the next few months. And that ceiling wouldn’t prevent the $1.50-per-month increase InterMedia is seeking to cover the cost of its system rebuild, now under way.
“There’s a lot of frustration out there,” said Council member O.T. Tomes, reflecting on the ever-rising cable rates.
The Federal Communications Commission is considering what to do about that, Mayor Leni Sitnick mentioned.
“Maybe we can give our citizens the 1-800 number for the FCC,” Council member Earl Cobb suggested.
“They don’t have one,” Asheville resident Bill Wall remarked from the audience. Wall later noted that he had already put in his call to them.
For local questions and problems, InterMedia General Manager Joe Haight gave his company’s numbers: 274-7500 for his administrative office; and 274-7801, to go straight to his desk.
Trust the Board of Adjustment
With similar reluctance, Council members gave the Board of Adjustment a touch more authority.
As long as the board follows a set of strict guidelines, it now has the power to let property owners subdivide residential lots into smaller sizes than were allowed under the Unified Development Ordinance.
City staff said the variance policy could help create more affordable housing. Lots up to 10 percent smaller than the property’s zoning designation would normally require can now be allowed.
Sitnick and Cobb expressed uneasiness about the idea. In the past, the BOA has appeared to grant nearly every variance requested — particularly for signs. Said Sitnick, “We have a great board now, but what about [future ones]? There could be opportunity for abuse [with] this authority.”
Cobb was concerned that neighbors might not have much say about the variances, but City Planner Gerald Green assured him that a public hearing would be required in each case.
Neighborhood advocates Brian Peterson and Janet Hart voiced opposition, noting concerns about increased density and decreased buffers between properties.
Green stressed that all landscape buffering and setback requirements would be unaffected by the change.
“We need to trust what the board will do,” argued Council member Ed Hay.
On a motion from Field that was seconded by Tommy Sellers, Council voted 5-2 to approve the variance policy. Sitnick and Cobb voted against it.
Give TSA a chance
Council was on the verge of leasing a new telephone system from Southeastern Telecom, a national giant in the business, when Sellers stood up for the local guy.
Sellers pulled the lease action off the consent agenda, calling Council’s attention to the charge that a local company, Telephone Systems of Asheville, might not have been given a fair shot at the contract.
Although Telecom’s lease price appeared to be thousands more than TSA’s, Finance Director Bill Schaeffer said he stands by his recommendation to choose Telecom. “TSA was found wanting on the capability [issue] from the beginning,” he explained. Schaeffer asserted that TSA’s emergency-response time was inadequate, that they had proposed a 5-year lease instead of the city’s requested 7-year term, and that the system they proposed didn’t include a connection to the new Mills River water-treatment facility.
TSA President Bill Arledge countered that city staff had spent little time considering his company’s offer. “City staff was predisposed to stay with their current vendor, [Telecom],” he complained.
Sellers suggested that Council table the issue to give staff, TSA and Telecom a chance for further dialogue. Council members agreed.