Biddeford City Council Clashes Over Franchise Fees

Thursday Jul 05, 2007

By: Stephanie Grinnell
Staff Writer
Source: Biddeford-Saco-OOB Courier
Thursday, July 5, 2007
Page: 15
Biddeford City Council members clashed once again during a discussion about what should be done about the public access television station and the franchise fees earned by the city from Time Warner Cable. In a close five to four vote during the last reading of the city and school budgets a few weeks ago, the council voted to reassign $150,000 of the franchise fees to the city’s general fund, leaving approximately $33,000 of the franchise fees for the public access station.
Councilor Matt Hight argued the high franchise fees paid to the city were the result of negotiations because Biddeford does not receive a facilities or capital grant as part of the annual fee paid by Time Warner. Hight said the higher fees were meant to take the place of the facilities and capital grants, which are used for the maintenance of the public access building and equipment.  Currently, public access is run out of the community center.
“There were no capital or facilities grants in our franchise fees. In lieu of that, a decision was made to go for the maximum franchise fee to build up the funds to create a capital fund so needs in the future could be met,” said Hight.
Councilor John McCurry argued the fees would be more helpful to the city if they were placed in the general fund for use for other improvements needed throughout the city because public access director Steve Pulos has not spent all of the funds in the past years. Council President Ken Farley said if the funds were not spent on the public access studio or programming, they must have not been needed to maintain the two public access channels shown in Biddeford.
“This past budget hearing showed that fund has been collecting far in excess of what is budgeted,” said Farley. “The money has to go back to the taxpayers in some way. Here, I think it’s trying to skirt the budget process.”
Farley said he would agree to keep the funds allocated for public access if there was a capital improvement process in place where the revenue equaled the expenditures.
Hight and Councilor Rick Laverriere have been the most vocally in support of keeping the franchise fees accessible for the use of public access.
“This is a very sore subject with me,” said Laverriere, who suggested the council have city attorney Keith Jacques interpret the original cable ordinance as well as changes that have been made to it during the past several years.
Councilor Mike Ready agreed that Jacques should be consulted.
“I don’t think this is something we could do,” said Ready, referring to the reallocation of franchise fees to the city’s general fund.
The original ordinance stated the franchise fees were to be dedicated to the public access channel’s upkeep, but a previous council repealed that section in 2003, less than a year after the original ordinance was put into place following a first reading and an emergency second reading during the same council meeting.
Laverriere said the franchise fees were intended to support communications in the city, not just the public access television. He said things such as the additional television set up in City Theater used to broadcast public hearings regarding Biddeford’s negotiations and contract with the Maine Energy Recovery Company would fall under that category.
“My feeling is I would like to see it continue to go into the cable fund,” said Ready.
No decisions were made regarding the future of funding the public access station during the meeting.
The council workshop also addressed the need for the creation of a facilities bond package for citizens of Biddeford to vote on in November. The items discussed for inclusion in the bond package included the city hall clock tower, city hall repairs, community center repairs, a roof for the public works building, the fund for the construction of an East Biddeford Fire Station and Combined Sewer Overflow, or CSO projects.
Farley said there will be a special finance committee meeting on July 9 to award an architect who responded to the city’s Request for Qualifications for the historic restoration of the city hall clock tower. From there, the architect will provide cost estimates as well as the extent of the repairs needed.
The amount of the bond package should be finalized in the next 40 days and the goal is to keep the bond around $4 million because that amount is not likely to affect taxes, Farley said.
A public hearing will be held to gather input about the proposed bond package, but the hearing date had not been set as of press time.