Buncombe County Board of Commissioners April 5, 2011 meeting
- Buncombe ranked N.C.’s 17th healthiest county
- Commissioners OK public-safety towers
A standing-room-only crowd turned out for the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners’ April 5 meeting; many were there to urge increased funding for URTV. The public-access channel can be seen on Charter Communications’ Channel 20 in Buncombe County and is streamed over the Internet from the URTV website. In an April 1 press release, the WNC Media Center (which operates URTV) announced that unless additional funding was “immediately forthcoming,” the center would cease operations April 30. The nonprofit also threatened to shut down last year due to financial problems (see “Broke,” June 9, 2010 Xpress).
The commissioners heard a report from John Howell of Telecommunications Consulting Associates, who advises the county on media issues. Buncombe County, he noted, currently receives about $34,000 in state supplemental PEG (public, educational and government channel) grants to be evenly shared by URTV and BCTV, the county-government channel. Legislation approved by the General Assembly last year will double that amount beginning July 1, with the two stations sharing the additional money equally.
The county also receives about $1.4 million per year from the state in cable-franchise fees. A small portion (5.79 percent) of those funds must be used to fund PEG stations, though it’s up to the county how it parcels out the money. Currently, the county uses it to cover operating expenses for BCTV and the Asheville City Schools channel. The bulk of the franchise-fee revenue goes into the county’s general fund.
In the past, Buncombe County received franchise fees directly from Charter Communications, but the company was allowed to terminate that agreement once AT&T was authorized to provide competing television service in the county. From 2003 until the agreement was terminated last year, Buncombe County received about $1.1 million in PEG support from Charter, $772,000 of which went to URTV, Howell reported.
Bob Horn, vice president of the WNC Community Media Center’s board, said the state supplemental grants aren’t meant to be public-access channels’ sole source of funding. “I think the problem is that we have this hang-up on supplemental fees,” he reasoned. “Most people know that supplemental means ‘in addition to.’ ... People are telling us this is what we have to live on.” Horn went on to say that while the county’s funding for URTV has been declining, other counties, such as Mecklenburg, have increased the funding for their public-access channels. URTV’s fiscal-year 2012 budget, which begins July 1, totals $297,450. The station has requested $261,500 of that from Buncombe County and the city of Asheville.
Commissioner Holly Jones asked Horn what steps URTV has taken recently to find other revenue sources. “I’m not very moved at this point that y’all have done the heavy lifting to get that gap in services down,” she observed.
Horn countered that the commissioners have misunderstood the purpose of public access, saying, “We cannot be commercial, from the standpoint that we would compromise our freedom of speech.” Having advertisers and sponsors, he explained, would mean URTV would have to worry about broadcasting content that offended them.
During public comment, many speakers echoed Horn’s concerns. Lisa Almaraz, one of several URTV producers in attendance, said, “This is the only local station for our people here in the mountains to have their voices heard.” And staffer Jonathon Czarny, the station’s operations manager, called it a “national model” for public-access television, declaring, “URTV is a feather in y’all’s cap.”
Others, however, argued that while public-access television is important, it shouldn’t depend entirely on local government for funding. “URTV as a whole has not collaborated throughout the community,” asserted Richard Bernier, who was removed from the nonprofit’s board in June 2009 after publicly criticizing the organization. The county, he said, can’t afford to continue funding public access at the same level as in prior years.
The commissioners took no action concerning URTV.
On other fronts, the commissioners:
• Heard a report from County Manager Wanda Greene on the county health rankings released recently by the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute, which found Buncombe to be the 17th healthiest among North Carolina’s 100 counties. The rankings consider such factors as tobacco use, diet and exercise, access to health care, education and environmental quality. Buncombe County is worse than the state average in the areas of adult smoking, high-school graduation rate and excessive drinking, but better than average when it comes to adult obesity, unemployment, access to healthy foods and preventable hospital stays.
• Adopted a zoning amendment permitting public-safety communications towers by a 3-0 vote (Board Chair David Gantt and Vice Chair Bill Stanley were absent). EMS, law-enforcement and Fire Department personnel use the towers to transmit critical voice and data communications.
• Endorsed legislation now working its way through the N.C. General Assembly that would authorize the county to coordinate local delivery of such human services as Medicaid, food assistance and child support. If passed, the measure would allow the county to consolidate those services under either a human-services board or the Board of Commissioners.
• Approved a number of board appointments, naming Rich Munger to the Homeless Initiative Advisory Committee, Cynthia Barcklow to the Asheville Regional Housing Consortium, Pam Myers to the Downtown Commission, Bill Biggers, John Dankel and Charles Sullivan to the Weaverville Board of Adjustment, Mary Kater to the Library Board of Trustees, Ellen Baker to the Nursing Home Community Advisory Committee, Stephen Frabitore to the Tourism Development Authority and Nan Chase to the Historic Resources Commission.
• Issued a proclamation recognizing Otto DeBruhl’s many years of service as the county’s register of deeds.
— Freelance writer Christopher George lives in Spartanburg, S.C., where he reports local government news on his blog, FlyingOskar.com.