COLUMBIA — By January, Columbia Access Television could finally have more stable funding — for nine months.
But once the fiscal calendar page flips from 2008 to 2009, the public access channel’s funding could be less certain.
If the City Council continues on the course set in Monday’s work session, CAT will have to start competing for funding in fiscal 2009 with other public communication programs, including the educational and government access channels.
Allocating the increased cable franchise fee money could mirror the city’s yearly application process for community development and arts grants, which council members agreed was a fair way to disperse public funds.
And while CAT is optimistic things will work out, it’s still frustrating news, CAT director Beth Federici said after the work session.
“We can’t be expected to come back every year,” Federici said. “I can’t hire staff and say every year, ‘You’re going to have to defend your salary.’ We need funding that’s way more stable than a yearly application process to run a TV station.”
The council voted in September to raise the city’s franchise fee — or the amount the city charges cable providers to use public right-of-way — from 3 to 5 percent, the national average. The increase will generate about $300,000 from Dec. 21, when the increase kicks in, until the end of fiscal 2008. For a full fiscal year, the city estimates that amount to be $400,000.
At the work session, council members agreed the initial $300,000 should be treated differently due to CAT’s pressing funding needs. In September, the council gave CAT $15,000 in bridge funding so they could make it to the year’s end.
City Manager Bill Watkins said city staff will meet with CAT in the coming weeks and should have a proposed contract ready for council approval by its Dec. 3 meeting.
But CAT shouldn’t expect the whole $300,000, Watkins said, because it’s hard to predict exactly how much extra revenue the increase will generate.
“It would be fiscally imprudent to allocate all of it because we don’t know,” he said.
The long-term proposal to allocate the extra revenue, which could include disbanding the city’s cable task force in favor of a new committee, may not be ready by Dec. 3, Public Communications Director Toni Messina said.
But if all goes according to the council’s plan, the committee’s funding allocations would be part of the city’s annual budget process for fiscal 2009.
Third Ward Councilman Karl Skala said the city needs to consider both start-up and stable yearly funding for CAT.
“They’re in a bind for some start-up funds, so when we consider it, we should consider some of the recurring operational expenses and some of the start-up costs,” Skala said.