Cable firm fines backed by Council

March 23, 1993|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,Staff Writer

The Howard County Council tentatively agreed last night to fine Mid-Atlantic Cable Co. $300 a day, beginning Jan. 1, if construction deadlines imposed under a 1988 franchise agreement are still unmet.

John C. Norcutt, Mid-Atlantic's general partner, asked for leniency at last night's council work session on his request to extend the franchise agreement to Dec. 31.

Mr. Norcutt told the council his financially troubled company has completed 93 percent of the construction it promised in 1988, has offered cable to more homes than promised, and has laid cable for more miles than promised.

The problem in getting construction completed, he said, has been two-fold. Fewer houses were built in the rural western part of the county than anticipated because of an 18- month moratorium and because of a downturn in the economy.

Some of the eight subdivisions still without cable don't even have houses built there yet, Mr. Norcutt said. Meanwhile, his company has brought cable television to 65 of the 73 neighborhoods it promised in 1988, he said.

Mr. Norcutt said his ability to fulfill the franchise agreement is dependent on the sale of other cable companies in Virginia. He said he could complete construction in Howard County 120 days after the Virginia sale is completed.

Councilman Charles C. Feaga, R-5th, who represents the district served by Mid-Atlantic, wanted to give the company the time it needs to finish construction.

Council Chairwoman Shane Pendergrass, D-1st, and Councilman Paul R. Farragut, D-4th, did not. For them, it was a matter of good faith. The company had promised something it couldn't deliver, they said, and should be penalized for it.

"If we do nothing, we're saying that it's OK not to keep your commitments," Ms. Pendergrass said. "We don't want to put you out of business. We do have to fine you or do something, but we want to do it without putting you out of business."

"I'd rather see the business succeed than prove a point," Mr. Feaga said. "I have seen the numbers [of Mid-Atlantic] subscribers increase each year. I am perhaps a little lenient because I didn't think it could be done that fast in the first place."

Initially, Councilman Darrel Drown, R-2nd, sided with Mr. Feaga and wanted the council to accept Mid-Atlantic's commitment that it would finish construction 120 days after the Virginia sale was completed.

To do otherwise, Mr. Drown said, would be to send the wrong message to homeowners in the western county neighborhoods still without cable. "If the deal doesn't go through, I don't know what we're going to do," he said.

Later, however, Mr. Drown joined Ms. Pendergrass and Mr. Farragut in approving an amendment to the franchise agreement that imposes a $300-a-day fine after Jan. 1, 1994, for every day the construction deadlines are not met.

A side issue that seemed to influence some council members was the fact that Mid-Atlantic owns or operates other businesses in the county that are $200,000 behind in property taxes.

The council will vote officially on the Mid-Atlantic question April 7. Votes taken at a work session are tentative until one is taken at a legislative session.

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