COLUMBIA — On the surface, Monday night looked to be a watershed moment for Columbia’s chronically underfunded public access channel.
The City Council approved raising the cable television franchise fee, a measure initially recommended to better fund Columbia Access Television. And to boot, the council signed off on $15,000 to keep CAT TV running until the end of the year.
But what could prove more important for CAT TV, and the city’s other access channels, is what the council didn’t decide Monday: Who will benefit from the extra funds, estimated at $260,000 in 2008?
“Nothing’s written in stone right now,” CAT treasurer Steve Hudnell said. “We want to be funded properly. We never intended to continue on $30,000 a year. That has been something that we never intended to go on this long.”
Both CAT and Columbia Public Schools, which runs the city’s educational access channel, have expressed interest in the money generated by the franchise fee increase. Video service providers, or cable and telephone companies, will now be charged 5 percent of their gross revenue earned within Columbia city limits to use public right-of-way. The 2 percent increase, according to a report to the council written by City Attorney Fred Boeckmann, would generate an extra $260,000 in 2008 and about $330,000 more in subsequent years.
In a memo to the council, Toni Messina, director of public communications, laid out a couple of options for the extra revenue. Funding city services or supporting some or all of the cable access channels are among the options.
Money from the franchise fee currently goes into the city’s public communications fund, which supports the city government cable channel and other communications efforts. Last year, the city received $515,729.
Another option, according to the memo, is to make the extra funds available to “a wider array of services that enhance civic-oriented communication.”
“What you would see are programs that allow citizens to get information about a wide variety of issues that allow them to better communicate with their city officials,” Messina said. “Anything that’s coming out of a channel like (CAT TV or educational access) is really aimed at enriching the discussion in a community.”
If there are more interested parties than funding available, divvying up the money could play out like the application process for Community Development Block Grants, she said.
Michelle Baumstark, the school district’s school community program and communication coordinator, said she hopes the additional revenue can be split equitably among Columbia’s three cable access channels.
Channel 16 has no fixed budget this year and instead scrapes together what it can out of the budgets for communications, instruction and technology, and bond issues, she said. More funding could mean being able to update and maintain equipment and respond to the numerous requests to increase the amount of programming.
“All three channels provide great services to the community,” Baumstark said. “We know that our parents and students and members of the community watch our channel and use it to get information. We think the district could greatly benefit from funds from the fees.”
The city has awhile before it will see the additional revenue, Finance Director Lori Fleming said. Depending on when the new fee structure goes into effect, the city could see extra revenue by the end of the year. The original ordinance proposed it going into effect on Dec. 21.
But the full effect of the increase will not be felt until the next quarter, in late March or early April, Fleming said. Cable providers are required to pay franchise fees on a quarterly basis.
In the meantime, Fourth Ward Councilman Jerry Wade said he proposed the $15,000 in funding to keep CAT operating until the council can make a decision on how to disperse the additional revenue.
“It’s simply to keep them operating,” Wade said. “They provide a very worthwhile service for the community. In an age of technology and high technology in communication, it’s important that we support different ways of having access to communication. It’s an important part of the democratic process.”
The money will come from the council’s contigency fund from fiscal 2007, which had a balance of $41,500 before Wade’s request, Fleming said.
The city, though, is still working out the logistics. Fleming said she thought it would be similar to previous city funding for CAT TV: they’d receive half the funding right away and the rest after filing reports with the city.
“We haven’t worked out an agreement yet, but they should get their funding soon,” Fleming said.