On the heels of a couple of uneventful meetings, the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners got down to business Oct. 1, tackling a pair of meaty questions: whether to approve a new cable-TV franchise agreement and whether to increase the sales tax seven months ahead of schedule. They also mulled over whether to sue the state over withheld reimbursements, eventually agreeing to hold off on that decision.
After more than a year of public wrangling, however, the commissioners unanimously approved a new 12-year cable-TV franchise agreement with Charter Communications. At stake were issues affecting everyone from cable-TV subscribers and advocates of free expression to school kids and proponents of a multimedia arts-and-education center as an engine for economic development.
Advocates of public-access TV and the multimedia center didn't get everything they wanted from the contract. But the agreement takes a major step toward launching local public-access TV -- as well as providing a boost to the idea that, if fully equipped, the public-access studio could eventually do double duty as a facility offering hands-on training in video, DVD production, computer animation and other multimedia fields.
Since the franchise agreement requires a second vote, board members also decided to extend the existing agreement with Charter until they can vote on the new one again at their Nov. 5 meeting.
But before the board could bless the Charter agreement, several county residents had a few choice words on the subject. Leicester resident Rusty Sivils, for one, argued that the proposed contract didn't provide adequate funding for a first-rate public-access channel.
"Obviously, the cable company doesn't want to pay us fair value for the use of our public right of way if they don't have to," Sivils told the board. "The issue comes down to whether you, our county commissioners, have the vision to see the civic, economic and public work-force benefits of a well-funded public-access channel, and whether you have the courage to deny the argument that public-access funding is responsible for higher cable rates. It is not.
"At a time of budget constraints, undervaluing our public right of way is not good stewardship of the county's assets."
Haw Creek resident Fred English complained that people in Buncombe County pay more but get less, adding that subscribers will be "getting the shaft" with the new deal.
"I'm gonna go to a satellite dish myself," he declared.
Buncombe County has become involved in cable-TV matters because local governments sell cable companies the exclusive right to use the public right of way to distribute their services -- for which the cable companies charge fees to subscribers (that is, the public).
The county's negotiator, consultant John Howell, tried to put a positive spin on the deal while hitting the highlights of the contract, which consolidates three franchises (covering the unincorporated parts of Buncombe County) into one. Overall, he said, the county would collect about $16.5 million in fees -- plus Charter agreed not to pass along to its customers more than $1 million in costs and services. However, many aspects of the contract do involve passing on charges to the 33,000 Charter customers in the unincorporated parts of the county.
"This agreement achieves all of your goals," Howell told the commissioners, listing those goals as serving the schools, government offices, fire departments and Charter customers, as well as providing public access.
The agreement calls for Charter to do the following:
• pay the county 5 percent of the company's gross revenues in annual franchise fees (estimated at $12.5 million over the life of the agreement, with the money going into the county's general fund);
• install, maintain and provide the county schools with a free 10-megabits-per-second Internet connection (more than three times the capacity of the connection the schools are now paying for) through the central administrative offices. Charter will pass a portion of the cost on to customers at a rate of 16 cents per customer per month; at current subscriber levels, the company would recoup at least $760,320 for a service Howell estimated to be a $1.1 million value to the schools;
• give any county agency served by Charter a minimum discount of 30 percent for services;
• provide high-speed Internet access to any fire department served by Charter for an installation fee of $149.95, plus a monthly charge of $49.98 (a 50 percent discount on the current price of a commercial high-speed Internet connection);
• fund three channels for community use (including the current government channel). Once those channels (called PEG -- public access, educational and government) are filled with 50 percent nonrepetitive, locally produced programming, Charter will provide a fourth channel. Also, if the cable system totally switches to digital signal transmission, the county and Charter may renegotiate the number of channels;
• pay the county $340,000 (half within 30 days and the remainder within a year), which Charter will recoup by passing the charge along to customers at a rate of 23 cents per customer per month. Once Charter recoups the $340,000, that monthly pass-through fee will go to the county for PEG support. At current subscriber levels, that works out to about $91,000 annually;
• pay the county at least 20 cents per customer per month ($79,200 annually at current subscriber levels) for "ongoing support" of the PEG channels. As locally produced, nonrepetitive programming increases, the fee could rise to as high as 40 cents per customer per month. Charter reserves the right to pass those charges on to its subscribers as well; and
• institute enhanced customer-service standards, establish a new policy for extending cable lines, and pay damages if the company fails to satisfy the terms of the contract.
The county plans to hold onto the PEG funds until commissioners enter into what's called an "interlocal agreement" with the city of Asheville spelling out how the public-access channel will be managed, funded and supervised, according to the contract.
County officials also gave a nod to the multimedia arts-and-education center championed by a spinoff of the Asheville Area Information Technology Council. The county plans to allocate between $10,000 and $15,000 of the PEG funds it receives to develop a business plan for such a center.
In his presentation, Howell also disputed an estimate (made by local media-literacy advocate Wally Bowen in a recent Asheville Citizen-Times article) that put Charter's gross revenue at $800 million to $1 billion over the life of the contract. A more accurate figure, he said, would be $237 million to $250 million. (Contacted later, Bowen said he couldn't respond unless he knew what Howell's assumptions were when coming up with the lower estimate.)
"It is clear the agreement stands out as a huge success," proclaimed Howell, a former telecommunications-industry professional who was hired by the county to negotiate the agreement.
Vice Chairman Bill Stanley allowed that Charter would make "a lot of money" in Buncombe County and asked how involved the company is in community affairs. Janet Cloyde, Charter's director of operations for Western North Carolina, replied that the company is involved in various local endeavors, including Toys for Tots and a possible digital project in the county schools.
Stanley persisted, mentioning that he hasn't seen Charter's name listed in connection with United Way fund raising. Howell leaped to Charter's defense, saying he'd run into Cloyde and some other Charter employees on a Haywood County playground-building project he worked on recently.
The other commissioners took pains to thank Charter and various other people who offered input on the negotiations.
"I'm convinced we're getting everything we can," declared Commissioner David Gantt.
Monty Fuchs, technology director for the Buncombe County schools, seemed pleased, noting that because of fiscal constraints, the schools have had to make do with a much slower Internet connection than the one to be provided under the new Charter contract. Commissioner Patsy Keever, a schoolteacher, added that the contract will also enable her to take a class to a computer lab and not have to wonder whether she'll have Internet access for all her students.
Reaction from public-access advocates and from proponents of the multimedia arts center, however, was more restrained.
"I think, from our point of view, the contract is satisfactory," Asheville Public Access Channel Commission Chairwoman Beth Lazer said later.
The city commission is working to set up a nonprofit organization to run a public-access station with joint city/county funding. Under the city's 1998 contract with Charter, $340,000 was collected from Charter during the first three years to cover capital and equipment expenses, followed by annual payments of at least $45,000. But the contract terms didn't allow that money to be used for operating expenses, Lazer has said, so the station couldn't get off the ground.
Lazer says she's been assured that the funds set aside in the county contract can be used to run the station, adding: "It provides operating money, which is what we want and need, and it indicates a desire on behalf of the county to work with the city on a combined public-access channel."
Asheville digital-media consultant David McConville, one of the folks pushing the proposed Media Arts Project, told commissioners he's pleased that they had allowed a privately hired consultant to review the proposed contract, which he said had resulted in a better deal.
Compared with other areas, "We're doing fair to middlin'," offered McConville.
Later, he said that while there's now enough money to get the PEG channels off the ground, it still isn't enough to fund the full-fledged media-arts-and-education center, adding: "We have what we have, and we just need to work with it and try to rally support for the larger concepts."
In an e-mail prior to the meeting, Wally Bowen, executive director of the Mountain Area Information Network and a member of the N.C. Rural Internet Access Authority, said about the proposed contract: "We are delighted that our position on free high-speed Internet access for county schools was vindicated. This is a major step forward for cable franchises among communities in the Southeast. However, when compared with cable contracts in the Northeast, Midwest or Far West, this contract shows that cable companies in the Southeast are still paying very low rents for monopoly use of our public right-of-ways."
After the vote, board Chairman Nathan Ramsey declared: "It might not be a perfect agreement, but it's a pretty good one."
A new tax
In light of the county's tight budget situation (a casualty, to some extent, of the state budget crisis), commissioners had little trouble agreeing unanimously to begin collecting an extra half-cent sales tax seven months early, starting on Dec. 1.
Back in June, board members had unanimously approved a local-option half-cent sales tax, which wasn't slated to take effect until July 1, 2003. That's the day after the half-cent sales tax the N.C. General Assembly adopted last year as a budget-balancing move expires.
State legislators had offered local governments the option of passing this sales tax to give counties and municipalities a reliable revenue source, replacing the annual reimbursements they've generally received from the state. For the past two years, the state has withheld those reimbursements to plug holes in its own budget.
The new sales tax will partially replace the $6.2 million in tax reimbursements for Buncombe County that weren't included in the state budget passed two weeks ago. County Finance Director Donna Clark estimates that the additional sales-tax revenues could bring in an extra $3.6 million or more during fiscal year 2002-03.
Ramsey thanked Rep. Wilma Sherrill for voting for the measure, adding that other members of the local legislative delegation thought they might have worked a better deal later.
"If we didn't get this, we were going to go without these funds for fiscal year 2003," observed County Manager Wanda Greene.
The sales-tax proceeds will be disbursed in quarterly installments. The money will go to agencies that had been promised funds this fiscal year, contingent on the county receiving the cash: A-B Tech ($766,000), the Buncombe County schools ($1.5 million), the Asheville city schools ($234,000), the Blue Ridge Area Authority ($465,000), the N.C. Division of Forest Resources ($67,000), county capital projects ($155,000), Pack Place ($200,000), agencies contracting with the Department of Social Services ($150,000), the Asheville-Buncombe Community Relations Council ($15,000) and housing services to be provided through a contract with the Planning Department ($50,000).
Taking on the state (or not)
Gov. Mike Easley's decision to withhold reimbursements to cities and counties has prompted nine counties and three municipalities to join a lawsuit (which is not a class-action suit) to get the money back.
But the commissioners weren't yet ready to make a decision on that count last week.
County Attorney Joe Connolly told the board he was bothered by the prospect of a Raleigh law firm collecting a 15 percent fee for having argued the suit. If Buncombe County could recover $4.4 million, that means the firm would come away with $660,000, he pointed out.
"I don't think that's a good use of the taxpayers' money," offered Connolly.
Ramsey, however, countered that 15 percent is the maximum the firm would get, and it would cost only $1,000 at the outset to join in the lawsuit.
At Ramsey's suggestion, Connolly said he would contact Boyce and Isley, the firm filing the suit, to assess the chances of success and report back to the commissioners on Oct. 8.
County resident Don Yelton presented a resolution from the local group Citizens for Change urging the commissioners to join the lawsuit.
Some say the suit has political overtones. Ellis Hankins, executive director of the N.C. League of Municipalities, sent a letter to members last month accusing Boyce and Isley of having "partisan political motivations" for filing the lawsuit just before the election, according to the Raleigh News & Observer. Gene Boyce has won about $1.4 billion in lawsuits against the state, while Dan Boyce, his son, ran against Attorney General Roy Cooper as a Republican two years ago. Republican Philip Isley is a Raleigh City Council member, the Observer noted. The newspaper also reported that Isley and Dan Boyce said they were "shocked" by Hankins' accusation, which they described as an attempt to sabotage their case.
In other action, the commissioners accepted a $277,000 grant from the Irene & Dick Covington Foundation for renovations to the Aston Park tennis clubhouse. The money represents almost the entire estate of late tennis pro Dick Covington, former Asheville Mayor Ken Michalove told the commissioners.
Along with other items of business, the board unanimously decided to declare its intent to join with seven other counties to form a "local management entity" that would oversee mental-health services under the state's mental-health reform plan. Along with its current partners (Madison, Mitchell and Yancey counties), Buncombe intends to team up with Henderson, Polk, Rutherford and Transylvania counties. The resulting entity would start operating on Jan. 1, 2004, Assistant County Manager/Tax Department Director Jerome Jones told the commissioners.
The board also accepted accolades from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which named Asheville and Buncombe County as one of a dozen distinctive destinations in the country.
In addition, the board made the following appointments: Ramsey to the Regional Water Authority of Asheville, Buncombe and Henderson; Kim Baker to the Adult Care Home Community Advisory Committee; and William Wescott to the Historic Resources Commission. The following people were named to the new Asheville-Buncombe Housing Task Force: Langdon Ammen, Roy Chapman, Janet Moore, Mark Stone, Mike Summey, Cindy Weeks and David West.
After a nearly three-hour public meeting, board members retreated to closed session to once again discuss the lawsuit (now under appeal) filed by the city of Asheville over which entity has zoning power in the city's newest extraterritorial jurisdiction.
The meeting was continued to Oct. 8, when the commissioners are also scheduled to hold a retreat. The board voted to cancel its Oct. 15 meeting, prompting Ramsey to quip: "When you don't have any money, you don't have to meet as often."
The board's next regularly scheduled meeting will be held on Nov. 5 in room 204 of the Buncombe County Courthouse; the "pre-meeting" (including time for public comment) starts at 4 p.m., followed by the formal session at 4:30 p.m.
The Buncombe County Board of Commissioners approved the following items by consent at its Oct. 1 meeting:
• the minutes of the Sept. 3 regular meeting;
• a quitclaim deed to J. David Caudle and Carrie F. Caudle for Lot 20 (.48 acres) in Pine Burr Park for $19,420;