COLUMBIA — Columbia Access Television's budget was revisited during a Columbia City Council work session Saturday morning. While the council didn't reach a final solution, members expressed concern with a proposal to end the station's contract with the city and discussed alternative funding options.
The council met with City Manager Mike Matthes and other city staff to discuss the merits of the proposed budget for fiscal year 2014. The meeting, which was open to the public, ran from 8 a.m. to 2:20 p.m.
Matthes' proposed budget would not renew CAT's contract with the city, which expires this year. Letting the contract expire would save the city $200,000 annually.
A majority of the council members favored continuing to fund CAT next year and moving forward at increasingly reduced levels. Eventually, the council would like to see the channel become self-sustaining.
"When we funded it, the five-year contract wasn't anticipating there wouldn't be any city support after that," Sixth Ward Councilwoman Barbara Hoppe said. "It's draconian to cut it off now, when you're so successful."
Mayor Bob McDavid said during the meeting that the city would not meet its needs no matter what the council decided on CAT funding, and after the meeting, he said he favored Matthes' proposal of eliminating all funding for the station.
"Columbia has more needs than it has money," McDavid said. "$200,000 is two police officers. To fund CAT is to determine that the service, as valuable as it is, is worth more than two police officers. That is not my opinion."
The station's budget has received increased scrutiny due to an overwhelmingly negative community response to the proposed cut. Third Ward Councilman Karl Skala said the feedback he's received from constituents was strongly in support of CAT.
"The email I've gotten concerning this issue is unanimously favorable," Skala said. "I understand there are a lot of folks who are very vocal about this who are activists, but that hasn't been the case for some of the other decisions the City Council has had to make."
CAT provides services to the community beyond its TV channel. The station offers hands-on training for cameras and video editing software to community members, and it is available to hire for media services. The station partners with nonprofits and other community groups to record events and create programming that otherwise would not be broadcast.
Executive director Jennifer Erickson, who spoke at the budget session, said CAT's value comes from providing access both to and for the community, such as community access to the latest production equipment and technology, and access for the community to share its voice.
"It's clear, hopefully, that we are valuable," Erickson said. "We provide a valuable city service."
The station is funded in part by cable access providers, which are required to give money to local governments in exchange for their use of public airwaves. The council is not obligated to spend the money on local access programming, however.
As cable subscriptions have dropped, so has the amount of money that providers are required to give local governments. But CAT's budget was contracted with the city for five years at $200,000, regardless of increases or decreases in the amount of money coming from cable providers.
Matthes said he realizes how hard the removal of funding would be for the station, but he didn't see any alternatives.
"I looked at everything the city funds, and looked for what I could, in good conscience, cut. There wasn't anything," Matthes said. "Given our needs across the community, we have cut every budget over the last five years. We didn't re-negotiate this contract, but we cut every other department."
Council members agreed that if funding for the station were to be cut, a gradual approach would be better than slashing CAT from the city budget entirely. Such an approach would give time for the station to expand their own fundraising operations, which now provide an additional $30,000 on top of the city's contribution.
Possible funding sources discussed by council included using some of its contingency fund, a $100,000 discretionary fund the council decides how to appropriate each year. Also on the table were funds generated from last year's surplus as well as using funds from other accounts and projects. The council also floated the idea of combining CAT with City Channel, which is maintained by the City of Columbia.
"The dramatic impact on CAT's budget was not foreseen until the last minute," Fourth Ward Councilman Ian Thomas said. "This supports my desire — and what I've heard from other council members — to at least ease the impact of this."
First Ward Councilman Fred Schmidt said that the city had already invested a significant amount of funding and equipment to the station and that reversing course at this time wasn't the best way to move forward.
"One could argue that we'd be losing the $1 million we've invested to date if we cut this off," he said.
Matthes acknowledged that such a cut was unprecedented and pledged to work with both the council and CAT.
"It's a hard stop, and that's not the council's track record," Matthes said during the meeting. "I'm happy to talk about alternatives as we move forward. I think there are ways to accomplish everyone's goals."
CAT's budget of $200,000 is a small part of the city's $414 million budget discussed at the work session. Council members agreed that they would meet privately with CAT representatives, but there will still be at least two more public budget hearings before the final budget is expected to be approved near the end of September.
While several members spoke of a consensus among the council that CAT should be funded for next year, they were not able to say whether funding would be guaranteed for future years.
Erickson said she thinks the city has an obligation to its constituents to provide a public access channel like CAT.
"City support of the public voice should continue on some level because the public demands that," she said. "The government voice without the public voice is not ideal for a rich community."
The next public meeting for the budget will be at 7 p.m. Sept. 3 at the City Council meeting
Supervising editor is Zachary Matson.