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Council looks at TV fees

Grafos questions 35 cent monthly fee by Comcast

In their enthusiasm to spare residents from anything that smacks of a tax increase, no amount is too small to come up for debate for the newest members of the Spokane Valley City Council. Tuesday it was a 35 cent monthly charge from Comcast that drew their attention.

The discussion began with city staff asking the council to reach a consensus on which option to explore for televising City Council meetings – whether to continue with Community Minded TV doing the work or use the money from Comcast to buy equipment and do it themselves.

An agreement with Comcast was approved by the council in December, which grants a nonexclusive franchise to Comcast to use the city’s rights-of-way to provide cable television. The agreement also states that the cable provider would give the city $440,000 over five years to pay for broadcast equipment for public access programming, with $150,000 paid up front. Comcast would recoup the money by adding a 35 cent per month fee to the bill of every Comcast customer in Spokane Valley.

Councilman Dean Grafos expressed concern about the fees Tuesday. “Aren’t we in fact talking about a tax or increase in fees?” he said.

Grafos said the city should look at reversing the franchise agreement “or are we stuck with this because a prior council approved it?”

The franchise agreement was voted on at the Dec. 3 council meeting, Grafos’ first as a councilman. The agreement was approved by a unanimous vote of all the council members, including Grafos.

Voiding the agreement would mean the city would give up a $1 million franchise fee paid by Comcast every year. The money goes into the city’s general fund and can be spent on anything. Comcast recoups that money by charging its customers a 5 percent fee every month, but cable customers have been paying that fee for years. When it incorporated the city inherited an agreement that was in place between Spokane County and Comcast and the city has been receiving $1 million every year.

Councilwoman Rose Dempsey said she wanted to look at broadcasting the meetings over the Internet. Council member Bill Gothmann advocated using Community Minded TV to record and broadcast the meetings as is being done now. The annual cost would be about $15,000, and Gothmann said it makes sense to spend a portion of the annual fee paid by Comcast to fund the broadcasts.

Grafos objected to Gothmann’s argument. “You have a $20 million deficit coming up,” he said. “We’re in the red.”

“I would correct you,” Gothmann said. “We do not have a deficit.”

In fact the city carried over $18 million from 2009 to 2010. The most recent financial forecast prepared by finance director Ken Thompson showed the city with a $13 million deficit by 2014 if no changes are made, but said the city could spend reserves and cut department budgets to eliminate that deficit.

Councilman Gary Schimmels said the city should refuse any money from Comcast for broadcast equipment even before the council makes a decision on how to broadcast the meetings, essentially giving back the 35 cents. “I think this could go on forever,” he said.

Dempsey noted that the council had a split opinion, not consensus. “I’m afraid we don’t have agreement on this,” she said.

“That’s your problem, Rose,” said Schimmels. “I’m stating a fact.”

“Excuse me,” Dempsey said. “This is a proposal, not a fact.”

Councilwoman Brenda Grassel said she is in favor of broadcasting the council meetings, but believes the city can pay for it on its own. “We could probably find some fat in our budget to cover this,” she said. “I do have some ideas or areas in our current budget that could be reduced.”

In the end the council directed its attorneys to explore options for changing the franchise agreement and city staff to research all options for broadcasting council meetings.

Directly after the discussion on cable fees, the council unanimously agreed that they should sign an agreement with the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office to pay for a precinct commander for an additional $150,000 a year. That includes a base salary of $100,000 plus benefits.

“We do need this position, no two ways about it,” said Mayor Tom Towey.

Grafos agreed that a second in command is needed. “We should go ahead and fund it,” he said.

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