Tax or fee?

Local cable-TV subscribers’ monthly bills include a so-called “PEG fee” printed there in black and white. (PEG stands for Public, Education and Government — for the three existing local noncommercial channels plus the proposed public-access channel.) But is it a tax?

Yes, says J. Wendell Runion, president/director of Asheville’s International Baptist Outreach Missions Inc.

“Everybody has cable,” he insists. And everybody ends up paying it, whether they like it or not.

In fact, there are about 33,000 Charter customers in the unincorporated parts of the county, which are home to more than 48,000 households. Satellite TV, of course, is another option (as is taking your chances with picking up network fare). And at this writing, there’s still no law requiring people to watch TV at all.

That said, local governments do get involved in collecting the fees from cable companies to fund PEG channels.

But MAIN Executive Director Wally Bowen says the idea that the fee is really a tax is a myth.

Federal law allows local governments to charge cable companies “rent” in exchange for granting them a monopoly on the use of public rights of way (streets and sidewalks) to lay their cable and access people’s homes to sell their product.

“It’s true that the way they print it out on the bill makes it look like a tax, but that’s just a clever con game to discourage local governments from charging the maximum allowable rent,” counters Bowen.

Cable companies, he argues, could just as well break out the amount they pay for air conditioning, for example, and print that on customers’ bills.

“We could give it to them for nothing — and does anybody think our cable bills will be lower as a result? Anybody who thinks that, I have some swampland in Florida I’d like to show them on the Internet,” says Bowen.

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