Budget Woes Cast Prestige In New Light

October 16, 1991|By Darren M. Allen | Darren M. Allen,Staff writer

A cooly received cable television proposal offered to seven Carroll towns for more than a year may begin to look more attractive as municipal leaders realize the damage state budget cuts could cause to their own spending plans.

At a meeting of the Carroll chapter of the Maryland Municipal League at the Westminster Volunteer Fire Company tomorrow night, mayors and council members are to get a detailed look at a proposal by Prestige Cable TV Inc. of Maryland that could mean a 67 percent increase in the amount of money the cable company pays to the county and towns.

The plan would extend the cable firm's franchise until 2010 -- the current franchise runs to 1999 -- and let the company take over five of 10 unused public access channels in exchange for a bigger cut ofits revenue.

Prestige pays the seven towns and the county that are wired by the Georgia-based company 3 percent of its revenue in exchange for its non-exclusive franchise. Manchester's 900 cable subscribers use Frederick Cablevision Inc.

Should the towns agree to the franchise extension and channel takeover, Prestige would boost the figure to 5 percent of revenues.

Current franchise fees total about $264,000. Under the proposal, they would jump to at least $440,000.

Town leaders are beginning to look at the offer more carefully, as the prospect of losing thousands of state dollars becomes more likely.

"This would mean about $5,000 to the taxpayers of Sykesville," said Mayor Lloyd H. Helt Jr., a longtime critic of Prestige and its monopoly on the county's cable market. "Times are tough. That's awfully hard to walk away from."

In the current state budget-reduction accord, Sykesville expects to lose more than $8,000 in police departmentaid. "We've got to look at any way to get money now," Helt said.

The proposal must be approved by all seven town councils and the county before it can be enacted.

During tomorrow night's meeting, townofficials are expected to be joined by some members of the county's legislative delegation.

After discussion of the cable proposal, some talk about the league's legislative push for 1992 is expected.

And in the forefront of that push is a plea to the General Assembly to stop issuing mandates to local governments without money to performthem.

"I hope the people begin to see beyond this shell game," said Westminster Mayor W. Benjamin Brown. "With our police grant, we are told to enforce state laws. We just lost $62,000 of that grant."

A worst-case scenario, Brown said, would be the elimination of the $264,000 grant and the layoff of some Police Department employees.

The league, during its annual legislative conference Oct. 24 in Baltimore, also will urge support for a study of new ways to raise municipal revenue and to give municipalities more power to enforce such infractions as parking tickets or littering violations.

But the elimination of state mandates without money seems to be winning the most support among Carroll's municipal leaders.

"It seems with these mandated things, the state gives you money, and then takes it away," saidJohn A. Riley, town manager in Hampstead and a town councilman in Manchester.

"The towns are not in a position to raise taxes in the middle of the year like the General Assembly can," he said.

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