The current North Suburban Communications Commission (NSCC) proposal has focused on securing even more money for operations. A Commission proposal to raise fees in the 10 member cities from $4.15 to $7.57 per customer/per month for the next 10 years is being discussed by your city councils in the next few weeks. These fees are in addition to the 5% of subscriber’s bills that is federally mandated. Yes, these fees go to “cable access” for broadcasting local government meetings and community events. We applaud that these proceedings are openly available to citizens without their having to attend, but in the age of YouTube and UStream and with Satellite (which does not have to pay franchise fees) why are fees growing 82% for this service?
On May 15, the NSCC recommended that each of ten cities in the North Metro Suburbs (Arden Hills, Falcon Heights, Lauderdale, Little Canada, Moundsview, New Brighton, North Oaks, Roseville, Shoreview, and St. Anthony) reject a franchise agreement proposed by Comcast. Each of the ten cities will now review the agreement and vote to accept or reject the proposed agreement.
The issue is not whether Comcast presented a solid proposal, nor is it whether the NSCC’s reasons for rejecting Comcast’s proposals and its subsequent demands of Comcast are reasonable. You can view the materials presented at the May 15th NSCC hearing here and decide for yourself.
The biggest threat to taxpayers is if city council members from the ten cities rush to judgment and act before all the facts are known and before all opportunities to negotiate have been exhausted. There are some key facts that should be a part of this decision:
- The taxpayers from the ten cities comprising the NSCC already pay among the highest franchise fees in the nation and they pay more than almost anyone else in Minnesota for community access television. As required by Federal law, Comcast subscribers pay a 5% franchise fee to each city, for the capital infrastructure costs of Community Access Television (which shows local government and community events and other locally produced programming).
- PEG Fees: Other than that 5%, cable subscribers in the 10 northern suburban member cities are currently paying an additional $4.15 in Public, Educational and Government (PEG) programing fees per customer. This is substantially higher than either Minneapolis ($1.26) or St. Paul ($1.97). Now, the NSCC is advocating the PEG rate go to $7.57 for the next 10 year contract.
- Comcast is already signaling that they will fight these increases if the cities try to enact them. City council agreement with the NSCC’s recommendation could very likely lead to a costly legal battle that if the cities lose would result in the useless expenditure of even more taxpayer dollars.
At question is whether the 5% federally mandated fees designated for infrastructure investments are necessarily augmented by the additional $4 to $7 per month per subscriber franchise fees to pay for operational expenses. Now is a good time to open the books and ask why North Metro’s fees are so much higher.
Instead of signing on to increases that will end up being a burden to ratepayers, the city councils can instead request the parties return to the negotiating table and work out a franchise agreement that respects the taxpayers in these cities. If you live in one of these cities you should be asking your city council member where they stand on this issue and whether they understand the stakes of this agreement and what the likely affects are going to be if the Comcast proposal is rejected and the NSCC plan is accepted. If they can’t explain their position and how it will protect the city’s bottom line, rates and service then maybe they need to take some time and understand the issue better.
We firmly believe all levels of government have an obligation to the people they represent to ensure tax and fee dollars are not unnecessarily collected, are spent wisely and accounted for at every step. Transparency is the key to responsible governance. That’s no less true with the way we pay for services that make transparency happen.