Council to consider raising video franchise fee

Friday, August 31, 2007 | 5:36 p.m. CDT; updated 10:42 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

COLUMBIA — A proposed ordinance to raise the fee Columbia charges cable television providers to use public right-of-way could inject much needed funding into Columbia’s beleaguered public access channel.

Currently, the city charges cable providers 3 percent of their gross revenue earned within Columbia city limits. If passed, the new ordinance would raise that fee to the maximum of 5 percent, effective Dec. 21. The city is required to give providers 90 days notice of any fee increase.

The higher fee was recommended by the city’s Cable Task Force to help better fund Columbia Access Television, City Attorney Fred Boeckmann said. The council, he said, will have two decisions to make — first, whether to raise the fee and second, how to use the additional money.

“(CAT) had, at this point, no other funding,” task force chairman Marty Riback said. “If they don’t get some money from the city, they’ll go out of business, they’ll go dark.”

Money from the franchise fee goes into the city’s public communications fund, which supports the city government cable channel and other communications efforts, Finance Director Lori Fleming said. The proposed fee increase, according to a report to the council written by Boeckmann, would generate an extra $260,000 in 2008 and about $330,000 more in subsequent years.

“We hope that they see that money is available to use to help fund the CAT budget, but like I said, there’s no guarantee,” CAT Board President Christine Gardener said. “We’re just trying really hard to educate the public and the council of the issues surrounding community access to the media.”

Unsure about the fee increase’s future, CAT has also been lobbying to be included in the city’s budget for fiscal 2008, which is set for another public hearing at Tuesday’s council meeting. Council members Karl Skala, Jerry Wade and Barbara Hoppe toured the CAT studio Aug. 28.

Boeckmann said the proposed ordinance is intended to update the city code to the reality of the statewide video franchise law, which was signed into law by Gov. Matt Blunt in March. The law allows video providers to negotiate a statewide franchise agreement rather than dealing with individual communities. Mediacom has since abandoned franchise negotiations with the city and is $10,000 behind in payments to CAT.

The memo to the council expressed frustration with the city’s inability to enforce customer service standards, calling them “largely meaningless” because of the new state law.

The ordinance would also regulate the placement of the utility cabinets video service providers install on public right-of-way. To address aesthetic concerns, the large cabinets, which have been a source of controversy in other cities, must be screened in on all sides with materials that achieve 80 percent coverage year round.

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