On the matter of Howard County's fine of Mid-Atlantic Cable Co. for the firm's foot-dragging over extending service into the western part of the county, we could not have described the dilemma any better than Council Chairwoman Shane Pendergrass.
"If we do nothing," Ms. Pendergrass told a company official, "we're saying that it's OK not to keep your commitments."
Mid-Atlantic has already demonstrated a consistent inability to live up to its word. Having promised to provide cable service to 73 neighborhoods in western Howard County by 1988, the company missed the original deadline and two subsequent extensions.
John C. Norcutt, Mid-Atlantic's general partner, has been crying poor as an excuse for his company's bad performance.
In his latest bid for yet another extension, he asked that the council hold off until he completes the sale of other Mid-Atlantic companies in Virginia.
If, in fact, Mid-Atlantic is hurting badly it might have considered selling its franchise in Howard County. But putting the council and residents on hold any longer is unacceptable.
Mr. Norcutt should consider himself lucky. The council has tentatively agreed to fine him $300 a day for delays occurring as of Jan. 1, 1994. That decision becomes final at the council's legislative session next Wednesday.
The fine may sound stiff, but the county's Cable Advisory Committee had recommended that the council fine Mid-Atlantic $13,000 for the delays thus far. Fortunately for the company, the council did not want to "put [Mid-Atlantic] out of business," as Ms. Pendergrass put it.
Given the council's tilt toward leniency, we are glad to see that at least some penalty is about to be imposed. Unserved cable residents in Howard, particularly in the west, have grown tired of excuses.
Mid-Atlantic's approach is unlikely to engender much sympathy, especial among people who already have cable service and are frustrated and angry about unchecked fee increases and less-than adequate service from a cable supplier with an official monopoly.
Whether the wiring delays are due to management problems or a tendency to promise more than they can deliver, the cable television franchisee needs to know there is a limit to the county's patience.