Buncombe Comissioners: Taking them down a PEG

  • Buncombe County Board of Commissioners June 15, 2010 meeting
  • Board allots $600,000 for pharmacy school
  • No-interest loan supports affordable housing
  • Commissioners approve $327 million budget

The Buncombe County commissioners had a lot on their agenda heading into their summer break.

Topping the list at the board's June 15 meeting was a public hearing on the state of the WNC Community Media Center, which operates public-access station URTV. Since the recent announcement that the station would shut down in September unless additional funding was secured, many URTV supporters have looked to the commissioners for help. About 50 of them packed the meeting room to speak on behalf of the struggling station.

No can do: Commissioners told URTV supporters at a recent meeting that they won't give the struggling public-access station additional funds. Photo by Jonathan Welch

The hearing began with a presentation by John Howell of the Waynesville-based Telecommunications Consulting Associates, hired to advise the county on the station's funding structure. The county is scheduled to distribute $48,000 in funds dedicated to public-access, education and government channels to the station next week, he explained. And that's in addition to the $764,853 in such PEG funds that the county has distributed to the station since 2003, noted Howell. (The money comes from a fee paid by cable subscribers specifically to fund these channels as part of franchise agreements with Asheville and Buncombe County.)

But due to a change in state law permitting phone companies to offer cable programming, Charter Communications was allowed to terminate the franchise agreements after it began facing competition from BellSouth. And with the cable landscape changing, URTV should expect to see less money in the future, noted Howell. Based on the current number of cable customers, Howell said the county would be able to distribute about $20,000 per year in funds set aside PEG channels to the station, which also receives such PEG money through the city and generates income from membership fees.

But that's not enough to keep the station running, said URTV producer Christopher Chiaromonte.

"I'm not asking just for the PEG money," Chiaromonte told the commissioners. "If you guys just give us the PEG money and say, 'OK guys, that's all you're going to get,' public access won't last."

Chiaromonte said he believes the money the station received in the past was "handled beautifully" and that "URTV is a star in public access across the United States."

Several other URTV producers echoed those sentiments.

Ronald Gates, a pastor at the Greater Works Church in Asheville, said his congregation's show, "Be Healed in Jesus' Name," has "been very effective in getting the message to folks in hospitals and nursing homes.

"It's been great to have the access to reach out into the community. I would ask that you please consider helping keep that going," he continued.

Producer Randy McCracken touted the station's educational benefits, saying, "It's a lot like a library: It's a wonderful place to learn. It's the only place I know of where you have the ability to walk in off the street and be educated on how to use multimedia. The staff is tremendous."

Connie Smith, who co-hosts two shows on the channel, pleaded with the commissioners, explaining that she wants to use the medium to try to find homes for animals in shelters. "I'm about to cry, so I'm just going to say please, please don't take URTV away," she urged.

After listening to supporters' appeals for almost two hours, the commissioners brought Howell back to the lectern and asked him what their options were.

"The county could certainly vote to fund this thing, but you're going to have to either raise taxes or unfund something else to do it," said Howell.

"We can't do that," responded Vice Chair Bill Stanley. "We can't raise taxes."

Several other commissioners seemed to agree.

Commissioner Holly Jones expressed sympathy for URTV's plight but said she doesn't think the media center's current services seem sustainable.

"There's no question that this builds community … that it's touching peoples' lives. … There's job skills happening — the good is not in question at all," she noted. "But I really don't think it's our responsibility to save URTV. … In this economy, there's not a nonprofit in town that hasn't had to change its ways."

Board of Commissioners Chair David Gantt, meanwhile, said that as an independently run nonprofit, the station needs to come up with its own solutions.

"I don't think this board's going to bail it out, because I don't think that's good for URTV any more than it is for the taxpayers — to just write a check," he argued. "I don't think we can — we're in a tight budget."

Commissioners help buy the pharm

In other business, the commissioners allocated $600,000 toward establishing a branch of the UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy at UNCA.

The money will help UNCA renovate a laboratory in Zeis Hall and buy equipment, including a cutting-edge video teleconferencing system, UNCA Chancellor Anne Ponder explained. That equipment, she noted, will enable students on different campuses to work together in real time.

The planned program, a collaborative effort with Mission Hospital, will also serve the region by training more health-care practitioners, added Ponder.

The commissioners applauded the plan, approving the funding on a 5-0 vote.

"The program is a wonderful way to reach out to the community," said Gantt, adding, "It's a monumental step."

Loan helps fund work-force housing

On another front, the board approved a $192,000 no-interest loan to King Land Development to help the company complete a 40-unit affordable-housing project in east Asheville. To qualify for the loan, the developer agreed to sell the homes for less than market value.

Facilitating more work-force housing, noted Gantt, is a priority for the county. "It's a cruel reality that not everyone who works in Buncombe can afford to live here," he said. "It's our dirty little secret."

The board also unanimously approved a $327 million county budget for fiscal year 2010-11.

The Buncombe County Board of Commissioners isn't scheduled to meet again until Tuesday, Aug. 3.

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

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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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