Westminster's cable TV fee underpayment criticized

Carroll County

February 23, 2003|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

The city of Westminster's method for determining how much of the cable television franchise fees it collects should be passed on to county government could shortchange an effort to beef up public access programming, Carroll's cable television administrator says.

Westminster officials say they will continue to pay a set amount that is not necessarily 2 percent of the city's share of cable franchise fees, although it agreed three years ago to pay the percentage amount.

Although the difference might be only a few thousand dollars, the city is violating the spirit of the agreement, said Ken Decker, chairman of the county's Cable Regulatory Commission. And any shortfall could affect progress on the $1.5 million Community Media Center under construction in Westminster, according to Decker and Marion Ware, director of the Community Media Center.

"We need the 2 percent from everyone to get our building up and running and to provide the services we promised," Ware said. "This is money that comes from cable subscribers and they should be getting the services from us."

Decker added that the fees also go toward CRC efforts to monitor cable provider Adelphia Communications Corp.'s adherence to its franchise agreement with the county.

Adelphia charges its 34,000 Carroll customers a 5 percent franchise fee, which it passes on the county government and to seven of the eight municipalities, depending on the residency of the customers. An agreement between the county and the municipalities stipulates that each allocate 2 percent of the fees to the regulatory commission.

The county and Westminster pay the largest portion of the fees, which are estimated to total more than $1 million in fiscal year 2004. The county's 2 percent share is about $427,000 and Westminster's is $68,000. Hampstead will pay about $15,000.

"Westminster was instrumental in drafting the agreement, but now wants to march to its own drummer," said Decker, who is also the Hampstead town manager. "It wants to pick its own number while the rest of us pay the 2 percent."

Matthew Candland, Sykesville town manager, said last week that other municipalities might be tempted to follow Westminster's lead, and that efforts to provide public programming might suffer.

"We have a public television station and a responsibility to keep it running," he said.

Although Westminster has never passed on 2 percent of the fees, it is not simply picking a number out of nowhere, said Thomas B. Beyard, the city's director of planning and public works. Based on information from previous years, the city estimates the amount it will pay early in its budget process, and it always pays months ahead of the due date, he said.

"We come close, but not exactly, to the 2 percent," Beyard said. "We always pay what we budget. All the rest of the towns together do not equal what Westminster pays."

The regulatory commission oversees the Community Media Center, which three months ago began construction of a building that will house studios which can be used for public access programming. The media center, which is expected to open in September, will develop infrastructure connections for the town and county channels and provide training and access to the public, educational and nonprofit groups that wish to learn how to develop programs.

"What Westminster doesn't give shorts the CMC," Decker said. "This facility is to be located in Westminster and Westminster will benefit more than any other single community."

The fees also pay the legal and auditing costs of enforcing the county's agreement with Adelphia.

"We have a contract and we have to invest money to make sure it is enforced," said Decker. "We exist to make sure Adelphia upholds its contract. The money from the franchise fees makes sure we have the resources to take them to task.

"Monopolies tend to behave very badly if they are not monitored. You have to keep an eye on them," Decker said.

The squabble could be the least of the county's cable problems. The relationship between Adelphia and Carroll's cable commission has been rocky since the company took over the franchise in 2000. Adelphia filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy in June but promised that neither its customers nor municipalities would suffer.

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