Dueling for dollars

More than just a job: As URTV faces a possible shut down, Operations Manager Jonathon Czarny says he's willing to work without pay for a while if it helps keep the public access station on the air. photo by Jonathan Welch
More than just a job: As URTV faces a possible shut down, Operations Manager Jonathon Czarny says he's willing to work without pay for a while if it helps keep the public access station on the air. photo by Jonathan Welch

Tensions continue to mount between Buncombe County and URTV: The county attorney says all funding due to the nonprofit has been paid, even as the public-access station threatens legal action. And amid murky legal questions concerning both the station’s funding and its operating agreement with the county, its future remains unclear.

In an April 1 press release, the WNC Community Media Center (which operates URTV, among other offerings (see sidebar, “A Public Forum”), announced, "Unless funding is immediately forthcoming," the center "will close its doors on April 30, 2011." The nonprofit later backed off from that deadline, even as it set another one: "This commission is still in a position to release the PEG moneys already owed to WNCCMC/URTV to avoid legal action presently planned on the part of all aggrieved parties by agreement before the close of this session and delivered by 10 a.m. Wednesday [April 20]," Bob Horn, the group’s board vice president, told the Buncombe County commissioners during their April 19 meeting.

That deadline, too, came and went with no notable action by either side. During the Media Center’s regularly scheduled April 20 board meeting, however, Treasurer Joe Scotto reported a $102,000 deficit in the $210,000 budget for this fiscal year (which ends June 30). "We've had a wonderful ship. It's taken us to many places, but without dedicated fuel, we're either going to dry-dock or we're going to be stranded out at sea,” Scotto told the board. "If we received the funding that we're due from the county, then we would be in a balanced position right now."

And five days later, County Attorney Michael Frue raised the bar, asserting in an April 25 memo that the county’s agreement with the nonprofit had expired more than a year before.

At this writing, the Media Center was reportedly planning to remain in operation at least through the first week of May while continuing discussions with officials at the state attorney general’s office and "with lawyers who might work pro bono," according to Horn. "We've got a lot of irons in the fire," he declared. “If we go down, we're going to go down fighting.”

You could look it up

At the heart of the dispute are conflicting interpretations of a 2006 law shifting the authority to issue cable-TV franchises from local governments to the state. A tax is levied on video service providers’ gross receipts, and the N.C. Department of Revenue then doles out shares of the money to cities and counties. A portion of those funds must be used to operate any qualifying PEG (public, educational or government) channels.

That money, however, comes in two streams — regular and supplemental PEG funding — and according to Frue’s memo, the two are treated differently under state law. Cities and counties with more than one PEG channel are free to decide how to divvy up the regular PEG funding among them, the memo asserts, as long as they collectively receive a specified percentage of the money the state provides. Supplemental PEG funding, on the other hand, must be shared equally.

Prepared (and made public) at the request of Board of Commissioners Chair David Gantt, the memo explains that even though the county has continued to certify URTV as a PEG channel, the management agreement expired Feb. 1, 2010, "due to the failure of URTV to request an extension." Since that time, the memo notes, “County government has made the decision to distribute the tax revenue [about $81,500 to date] to its governmental access channel, BCTV.”

The Media Center sees things differently, however — and cites the same state law (which was revised in 2008 in an attempt to clarify PEG fund distribution) in making its case.

Section 2 of the law, the nonprofit notes, requires local governments to "continue the same level of support for the PEG channels and public stations" that existed in 2006.

As for the managing agreement, Horn says the county "never canceled our contract," citing a clause in the document which states: "If a new agreement is not in place at the expiration of this Agreement, it is understood by the County and the Contractor [URTV] that this Agreement will remain in place until such time as a new Agreement is signed or the Contractor is terminated."

Asked about the discrepancy, Frue responded: "You can't read a contract by looking at one sentence in a several-page document, and I think that's the mistake they made. … They teach you in law school to read the four corners of the instrument."

Horn, however, says: "We're going to submit to them a document demanding payment and then take legal recourse to demand back payment. We stand by the law of the N.C. Department of Revenue."

Meanwhile, a draft document obtained by Xpress may shed additional light on the Media Center’s current position. In a draft of a “demand for payment” dated April 28, the nonprofit said it had been underpaid by several hundred thousand dollars between 2007 and the first half of 2011, once again threatening legal action if the money wasn’t received within five days. As this issue went to press, however, the letter was apparently still being revised and hadn’t yet been sent to the commissioners.

Show me the money

Financial concerns are nothing new for the station, which also threatened to shut down last May due to the county’s withholding funds.

At the June 15, 2010 Board of Commissioners meeting, however, John Howell of Telecommunications Consulting Associates, who advises the county on media issues, revealed that the county was about to distribute to the station $48,000 in PEG funds that he said had been lost in a "black hole," enabling URTV to continue operations. Asked about that statement recently, Howell told Xpress that, due to paperwork issues, the county hadn’t realized it was legally required to distribute the money to URTV until that time.

During the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2010, the station received $86,134 in PEG funds from the county, according to an independent audit of the nonprofit by the Asheville-based accounting firm of Corliss & Solomon. During the same period, URTV also received $60,000 in PEG funds from the city of Asheville as well as in-kind support (use of city-owned equipment) valued at $36,932, according to the audit. A mix of registration fees, classes, donations and other moneys rounded out the center's $210,872 total revenue that year.

According to URTV, the PEG moneys it receives from the county have dropped from $132,267 in 2006 to a projected $14,636 for fiscal year 2011.

Don’t get your hopes up

The county largely blames the declining funding on the 2006 state law. And at the June 15, 2010 Board of Commissioners meeting, Howell said, "The state basically threw PEG funding under the bus.”

But at the April 5, 2011 Board of Commissioners meeting, the Media Center’s appeal for additional support fell on deaf ears. The county, asserted Howell, was meeting its legal obligations, and neither party should expect any additional PEG funds from the state beyond what had already been projected.

Two weeks later, as Media Center producers and board members once again pleaded with the commissioners for more funding, their tone shifted somewhat, as Horn, reading from a press release the nonprofit had also distributed among the audience, explained: "WNCCMC will not be closing its doors at this time as originally announced. The Board … is looking at legal and financial obligations and responsibilities of due process. Due to moneys owed WNCCMC and the fiscal responsibility (culpability) by contract with Buncombe County Board of Commissioners, WNCCMC requests that bills and funds be paid."

And during the nonprofit’s April 20 board meeting, Executive Director Pat Garlinghouse reported that as of April 30, the organization would be "minus and have bills that will not be paid. It's impossible to cut expenses,” she asserted. “We're only spending what we're required to spend under contract."

A bad situation

URTV has an ally in Chad Johnston, the executive director of affiliated public-access stations in Chapel Hill and Durham, who says he "helped write the legislation" governing PEG funds as a member of the N.C. Coalition for Community Media Centers.

"We worked really hard to make sure there was some do-not-harm language in there," Johnston recalls. "It sounds like the county is interpreting the law incorrectly. … They should be speaking with the attorney general and the secretary of state."

And though both Howell and Frue have said that PEG funding dried up when the state assumed control of cable franchises and the resulting tax revenues, Johnston paints a decidedly different picture. "PEG funding hasn't been hurt" at the Chapel Hill station, he says. "As a matter of fact, we're actually a little better off under the state model," adding that the station's annual budget is roughly equivalent to URTV's.

Gantt, meanwhile, says he trusts the opinion of the county's legal and technical advisers, though he concedes that "It's a bad situation. … We just disagree on the interpretation of the law."

Gantt also says he "continues to be a big proponent of URTV," adding, "I think it's extremely important to have a place where anyone can go and get their message and thoughts out to the community as a whole. … I hope the [nonprofit’s] board will come up with some creative way to stay alive."

That doesn't sit well with Jonathon Czarny, the station’s operations manager, however. "You can't reduce funding by 90 percent and say, ‘Good luck: We support you,'" he declares.

— Jake Frankel can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 115, or at jfrankel@mountainx.com.

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About Jake Frankel
Jake Frankel is an award-winning journalist who enjoys covering a wide range of topics, from politics and government to business, education and entertainment.

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20 thoughts on “Dueling for dollars

  1. Lasereye

    Thank you MountainX and especially Jake Frankel for a fine report giving both sides of a story with supporting facts of position. It is a good thing in our democracy for the citizens to have a place to practice their freedom of speech; unfettered by the influences of institutions and commercial interest which have a propensity to filter; to keep up appearances to propagate one point of view.

  2. Illuminatti_01

    Board Member Dale Joyner trys to blame Holly Jones @ County Commissioner’s meeting 4/3/11
    http://youtu.be/xYe3VbTx8w4

    Holly Jones is having none of it, and lays responsibility of URTV’s issues squarely where they belong.

  3. Way to go Jake, Finally a journalist who looks at ALL the Facts then writes the Truth. How unusual in a World that Corporate media controls.

    As one of the active producers at URTV who values my 1st Amendment, the Government will be held accountable!

  4. F@ UNCA

    . “We’re only spending what we’re required to spend under contract.” ~ Patricia Garlinghouse E.D. URTV

    Under what contract?
    They needed to renegotiate their lease back in ’08 when the bottom fell out of real estate. A competent Manager would have started there. That said….wht “contract” requires them to spend, way far above what other comparably funded Public Access stations spend?

  5. F@ UNCA, what is your source that they “spend way far above what other comparably funded Public Access stations spend”? Can you back that up with facts? I’d like to see your data on the funding of other Public Access stations and how it is spent so that I can understand your statement. Thank you:)

  6. JamesL

    It’s very telling that the URTV people keep clinging to a contract which they failed to request renewal on. It wasn’t so important when they let it lapse, apparently oblivious to the fact is was ending and all they had to do was request an extension. Now they want to pretend their contract continues until denied extension or is cancelled by the county, but that would only apply if URTV had even made the effort to request an extension or renewal. I don’t understand why the county continues to give them any money when they have no contract in place and they demonstrate no ability to comply with the one contract that allows them to function at all. What happens when they fold and can’t produce all the equipment the city bought with taxpayer dollars? Who’s going to be criminally liable if there’s something missing?

  7. “Who’s going to be criminally liable if there’s something missing?”

    If equipment proves to be missing…it was the Board of Director’s fiduciary responsibility to see that there was proper accounting and care of monies and equipment.
    So the paying public should expect something from those people.

    Also at Tuesday 5/3/11 Commissioner’s meeting, the abusive behavior by several URTV supporters was pretty much throwing gasoline on the bridges they were already burning.

  8. Lasereye

    OBSERVATION: Nothing new here in Comments but the same meaningless and uninformed innuendo – supporting the decline of comprehension and the ability for discernment to an all-time low in the USA.

  9. Betty Cloer Wallace

    Davyne, I imagine you are exhausted by now with this, but I hope you will continue to keep us (MtnX readers) informed from your long-time insider perspective.

    In the past I know that you have been deemed a “whistleblower” and such, in a negative sense, but you were no such thing, at least not negatively. You were simply doing your duty as a board member to provide “sunshine” to a publicly-funded enterprise, which is what any board member of a publicly-funded enterprise is supposed to do.

    Stay with us (the public) to the end, whatever that resolution might be, and please keep us informed.

  10. Thanks, Betty. The learning experience has made this an exceptionally interesting experience. I always kept Molly Ivans’ advice in mind (fight the good fight )……..
    because it’s worth it for what one learns.

  11. Betty Cloer Wallace

    It appears, Davyne, we share a common hero in Molly Ivans, god rest her soul.

    Molly was always insightful and, IMHO, always right.

    At least I never found myself on the opposite side of any of her positions.

  12. Bjorn

    Why is there *STILL* an issue getting the allocated funds to URTV? It’s ridiculous, and suggests some where, some one, simply doesn’t want URTV to have the operating funds. I worked in Public Access for many years in NY & there was never this absurd circus of getting funding released.

  13. Illuminatti_01

    Last week at County Commissioners meeting a URTV Board member accused Holly Jones of not caring that people were losing their jobs, Holly Jones said that the lack of responsibility showed her that “management structure is broken” at URTV. I seriously doubt any real money will be given till a new structure is set up.

    And rightfully so….anyone but me see this article in the ACT?

    [url=http://www.citizen-times.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=2011304130025
    ]Asheville area’s URTV spending questioned[/url]

  14. Bjorn

    The monies collected from cable franchise fees for Public Access are not hinged upon Public Access making a profit. The monies may be freely spent as deemed necessary to keep operations going.

    To force the constraints of expectation of generating profit, it’s the Antithesis of Public Access. It would change it’s essential nature. Causing it to become a Commercial TV station – Which is not, why Public Access was created.

    To continue denying URTV operating funds is to deny the people free use of their Public Airwaves.

  15. Big Al

    “To continue denying URTV operating funds is to deny the people free use of their Public Airwaves.”

    To defne the handful of people who produce or watch URTV as “the people” is a belly-roar of a joke.

    And since when did “free use of their public airwaves” come to include stoned hippie monks mooning the public?

    Shut it down. Shut it down…Forrrrevah!

  16. Illuminatti_01

    What part of “questionable spending” do the URTV supporters of the present **”broken management” not understand? You may have your heads firmly buried in the sand, but the people responsible for dispursing funds do not. This is a crises that should have been dealt with two or three years ago.

    ** Quoting H. Jones at the mid April Commissioners Meeting.

  17. Bjorn

    To Big Al – it’s not who uses Public Access but the fact that *ANYONE* can choose to use it. Free Speech isn’t solely reserved for ideas, opinions & beliefs that we agree with, either there’s free speech for all including: “stoned hippie monks” or no one.

    To Not URTV:

    Buncombe audit: URTV didn’t misuse funds, but failed to follow open meeting laws SEE: http://www.mountainx.com/news/2010/buncombe_audit_urtv_didnt_misuse_funds_but_failed_to_follow_open_meetings_l

    There was never any finding of Misused Funds by URTV. Why continue to spread this false allegation?

  18. What.happens.now?

    So your position is a pillar of the community “F. Shriner” is risking his standing in the community by m submitting a false report to the City and County Manager? If so URTV’s management and BOD have a lawsuit against both the CPA and the Citizen Times (deep pockets). Hey, there’s the key to remaining open….as lawsuit against Gannett. But a lawsuit is not forthcoming, because in fact that report is true.

    You obviously (very self-servingly) missed an important detail, it was revealed in the report that in fact Tim Flora did not do a thorough audit.

    The community needs to look closely at the makeup of this Board and what led to this debacle. I agree with the above statement, the community should indeed hold this Board responsible for their inept governance.

  19. Bjorn

    TO: What.happens.now?

    Seems you missed this important detail (one that has apparently been cleared up)

    “On the subject of open meetings law, the response from URTV asserts that the law “applies only to government bodies with legislative, administrative, public policy and other governmental functions” but that “the Media Center has successfully negotiated with the City any requirements related to NC OML (open meeting law) into the WNC Community Media Center management contract.”

    http://www.mountainx.com/news/2010/buncombe_audit_urtv_didnt_misuse_funds_but_failed_to_follow_open_meetings_l

    As a documentary filmmaker/photographer I’d like to see a show about local farms, organic gardens, ordinary people with extraordinary lives & experiences – those people who are making a positive impact on the area.

    Self serving smoke screens only distract from the opportunity, for the community to use public access as a means to tell its’ story, one it should not be denied.

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