In just a few days, the latest extension of Buncombe County’s cable-TV franchise agreement with Charter Communications runs out.
At their Oct. 1 meeting, the county commissioners will decide whether to seal a new 12-year deal with Charter or temporarily extend the contract yet again (as they’ve done every few months for the past year or so) while negotiations continue.
The issue is a public one, because local governments sell cable companies the exclusive right to use the public right of way to distribute their services — for which the cable companies charge fees to subscribers (i.e., the public).
Local governments negotiate many contracts, most of which attract little attention. But this one is different: It could affect everyone from cable-TV subscribers and advocates of free expression to schoolkids and proponents of a multimedia arts-and-education center as an engine for economic development.
Nonetheless, the details of the proposed contract remain elusive. At press time, County Manager Wanda Greene was putting the likelihood that the commissioners would vote on the contract on Oct. 1 at about 60 percent, though she was unwilling to reveal more about where the negotiations stood at that point and said there wasn’t a new draft contract to share with the public yet.
“I’m not at liberty to say what will be part of the contract,” Greene said on Sept. 17.
A Charter spokesman was similarly tightlipped.
“We’re still negotiating with the county, and since we’ve not come to an agreement, it would be premature to discuss terms and conditions,” said Buddy Timmons, the company’s director of government relations and community affairs for the Southeast.
Timmons wouldn’t predict whether the two parties would conclude an agreement by Oct. 1, observing, “There’s still a lot to review and negotiate.”
“I think both sides are operating in good faith,” said Timmons. “And I have nothing additional to add at this time.”
One of the issues on the table is how much Charter is willing to pony up to create a public-access channel (including the requisite production facilities) and provide operating support. The money would be shared with the educational and government channels already in operation (the three are collectively called PEG).
Another issue is the so-called “institutional network,” which addresses what kind of Internet connection will be provided to public schools, county-government offices and volunteer fire departments — and at what cost.
Meanwhile, members of the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce’s Information Technology Council believe a fully equipped studio could double as a multimedia arts-and-education center — which they maintain could boost the area’s chances of becoming a multimedia hot spot and so spur economic development. (See “Pay TV?” in the July 31 Xpress.
In fact, back in August, the commissioners agreed to extend the contract until Oct. 1 so that a private consultant hired through a spinoff of the IT Council could offer input.
On Sept. 11, the consultant (whom those close to the negotiations have declined to identify) had a conference call with Board of Commissioners Chairman Nathan Ramsey and representatives of the city, the county schools and the local business community, said David McConville of the Multi-media Arts Project’s “working group” (which is pushing for the proposed multimedia center). Ramsey and Commissioner David Gantt have been the county’s liaisons on the issue.
“We’re working with the county to determine the ways in which the contract could best benefit media access for the public, education and government [channels], and for the schools … and the county with the institutional network — all parties involved, basically,” said McConville. “The commissioners are being very cooperative and open to suggestions.”
As of last week, Greene said she hadn’t heard any recommendations yet from the privately hired consultant.
Meanwhile, public-access and multimedia-arts-center advocates are also talking. In late August, members of the group pushing for the multimedia center met with the Asheville Public Access Channel Commission, a city-appointed group that’s working to set up a nonprofit organization that would run a public-access station with joint city/county funding.
“We definitely agreed to progress forward and look for ways we could merge our efforts,” said McConville.
Channel Commission Chairwoman Beth Lazer says the commission is “wholly in support” of a full media-access center for the community that would include both public-access TV and the type of equipment and training opportunities that McConville is championing. That single facility, she says, could serve both city and county residents.
“The concern I have is that in order to develop the plans for … such a broad-based [media] center — [it] will take a long time,” says Lazer. “And we want to get the public-access station up and going.”
But that requires funding, and commission members have set their sights on the money designated for operating expenses in the county’s contract with Charter. The city, meanwhile, has its own contract with Charter — signed four years ago — which provided $340,000 during the first three years to cover capital and equipment expenses, followed by annual payments of at least $45,000, notes Lazer. But she maintains that under the terms of the contract, those funds can’t be used to cover operating expenses.
“I still don’t have assurances from the county that the money they eventually do negotiate — regardless of the amount — will be available for operating, and we need that,” insists Lazer.
Another concern is how much money will be allocated. Based on another consultant’s estimate, it would take about $200,000 a year to run a worthwhile public-access station, she says.
“We don’t want a VCR box in a closet,” notes Lazer.
A lesson in speed reading
The July 2 draft of the contract (the most recent one available) called for Charter to pay the county a franchise fee equal to 5 percent of gross revenues (estimated at $1.1 million annually).
That draft also proposed that Charter pay the county a one-time PEG grant of $340,000 in the first year, which could help cover the project’s start-up costs. The draft also called for Charter to pay the county an ongoing PEG support fee starting at 30 cents per customer per month (which would total about $122,400 annually, based on the current number of subscribers). As nonrepetitive programming increased, the PEG support fee would rise to as much as 50 cents per customer, according to the contract.
Under that proposal, however, Charter would also reserve the right to pass along both these costs by raising cable rates to its 34,000 subscribers in the unincorporated parts of the county by at least 55 cents a month.
Of course, whether those provisions are still on the table is anybody’s guess.
“I’d love to see a draft contract,” says dedicated public-access TV advocate Wally Bowen, the executive director of the nonprofit Mountain Area Information Network.
“It’s been a fairly open process with some public involvement over the past year,” notes Bowen, pointing to a task force that met with Ramsey and Gantt last summer to discuss the contract. “I just hope that openness continues in the last few days before the Oct. 1 deadline. … I hope concerned citizens have a chance to thoroughly review the contract, after all this time and effort over the last year.”
If the county follows its usual procedure, however, the public will have only a few days to review the contract before the commissioners vote on it.
On Sept. 26 or 27, the county will post the agenda for its Oct. 1 meeting on its Web site (www.buncombe.org/agenda), notes Greene. If the commissioners plan to consider voting on the contract at that meeting, a draft of the document will appear there.
The public will then have a chance to comment on that (or any other item) before the start of the commissioners’ Oct. 1 meeting. The public-comment session begins at 4 p.m. in Room 204 of the Buncombe County Courthouse.
To learn more about the proposed multimedia arts center, check out www.themap.org.