COLUMBIA — Funding problems could finally be a thing of the past for Columbia Access Television after the City Council voted early Tuesday morning in favor of a five-year contract that would pay out $200,000 a year for operating costs starting next fiscal year.
But the council stopped short of guaranteeing any capital funding to renovate CAT’s studio at Stephens College and went ahead with plans to create a competitive application process for any additional public communications funding.
“CAT has worked with very minimal funds, but they could accomplish a lot more,” Sixth Ward Councilwoman Barbara Hoppe said. “I think we owe them the funds to get a good second start.”
The contract, which will not go into effect until both sides sign, will provide CAT with $150,000 for the rest of fiscal 2008 and $200,000 a year through fiscal 2013.
The money comes from the extra revenue generated by the 2 percent increase of the city’s cable franchise fee, approved in September by the council. The city estimates the increase will generate an additional $300,000 to $400,000 in fiscal year 2009.
Before the increase, the franchise fee, which the city charges video providers in exchange for use of public right-of-way, was 3 percent of the provider’s gross receipts within city limits. In 2004, the city’s Cable Task Force recommended to raise the franchise fee to the federal maximum of 5 percent to help fund the public access channel.
CAT members approached the contract with mixed feelings. Without guaranteed capital funding, it will be hard to attract any candidates for the staff positions the city-funded operating budget creates, said Beth Pike, CAT volunteer and member of the Cable Task Force, before the meeting. It just doesn’t make sense to have operating funds without the money to buy equipment, she said.
“We would be spending the money from the city foolishly if we spent what they gave us for operating costs without having any capital,” she said.
Fifth Ward Councilwoman Laura Nauser, the only vote against the contract, questioned the total amount CAT was asking for: $1.15 million for operating costs plus about $400,000 over four years to revamp the studio and replace other equipment.
“That’s a lot of money,” Nauser said.
But Fourth Ward Councilman Jerry Wade argued the council needed to consider that CAT has not been able to make any real capital investments for the three years they’ve been on air.
“When you do that, it creates a heavier hit when you move from nothing to building a base for quality,” Wade said.
City Manager Bill Watkins repeated concerns about not wanting to promise too much money to anyone before the city had a better idea of how much extra revenue the fee increase would generate.
“We certainly hope CAT would apply for that money as well,” Watkins said of the decision to go forward with a competitive application process.
In a memo to the council, City Attorney Fred Boeckmann made it clear CAT was not satisfied with the final contract’s funding amount. During contract negotiations in December, the city and CAT had discussed including an assurance that the city would fund the Studio A overhaul within three years to follow through with CAT’s original promise to renovate when it moved in 2004.
“I would like to feel like we’re not taking advantage of Stephens,” CAT Director Beth Federici said.
As the contract stands, CAT will be able to apply for additional capital funding on a year-to-year basis through the competitive application process. Both the City Channel, which is funded by the city’s Public Communication Department, and the educational access channel, which is funded by Columbia Public Schools, have expressed interest in receiving extra money.
A potential process was laid out in a report presented to the council at the end of the meeting. The report, written by Public Communications Director Toni Messina, recommended creating a five- to seven-member Public Communications Resource Advisory Committee to oversee the application process and make funding recommendations to the council during annual budgeting.
In the report, Messina suggested the money be made available to “non-commercial, not-for-profit entities” interested in “public communications access.” That could include the public, educational and government access channels, non-commercial radio stations and educational institutions.
Messina said after the meeting that the next step was for city staff to draft an ordinance creating the committee. To be able to begin distributing the funds for fiscal 2009, the committee would need to be in place by March, according to the report.
CAT board members, though, were unsure of their next step but hoped to meet with Stephens President Wendy Libby, Watkins and Messina to discuss finding a solution to their concerns.
“We really need to think of this thing as the whole picture instead of small parts,” CAT board member Jo Sapp said.