2017-07-06 / News

Saco continues with 10-year cable negotiations

By Grant McPherson
Staff Writer

SACO - Saco City Information Technology Director Ryan Pinheiro said the Saco Cable Advisory Committee’s next goal will be to better address public concerns over contract negotiations between the city of Saco and Spectrum.

Every 10 years the city’s contract with Spectrum, formerly Time Warner Cable, is up for renewal which Pinheiro and the advisory committee will negotiate on behalf of the city to better improve public access for residents.

Pinheiro said he is only negotiating details for cable television, not for phone or internet service. He said he is also not negotiating for Spectrum to be the only cable company in Saco.

Pinheiro said he received a call from a Saco resident asking what an extra $6 a month on their bill was being used for.

“Any additional funds are being charged by Spectrum, they’re not coming from the city of Saco,” Pinheiro said. “I have no control over fees.”

Pinheiro said he will prepare a presentation for a city council meeting scheduled for 7 p.m. Monday, July 17 to help answer questions from councilors and the public. Pinheiro said the meeting will be televised and streamed online, and he hopes to upload it to YouTube and Facebook. Pinheiro said he wants to run a public service announcement about the negotiations on Thornton Academy TV and send more information to residents via either mail or email.

Tony Vigue, an outside cable franchise adviser, said it will be important for the city to have a clear and consistent policy on which meetings are televised and which are not. City council meetings are broadcasted on the public access channel shared by the city and the school system. Pinheiro said he hopes to negotiate for three channels, one for government, education and public access each.

“The public will notice which meeting isn’t televised and ask what you are hiding,” Vigue said.

Pinheiro said the council will need to decide how it wants to allocate funds from Spectrum. The city receives franchising fee funds from Spectrum every quarter, approximately $23,000 depending on subscriber count. Pinheiro said creating a new Public Access department with a staff to manage the channels is a possibility. Pinheiro said purchasing equipment up front will be important because of the high turnover rate with most technologies.

Ward 3 Councilor Bill Doyle said the economic development department could help offset the cost of running public access channels and in turn the channels could be used to market the economic development department.

“It’s a discussion for now, not a decision,” Doyle said.

Vigue said it is not unusual for municipalities to split the funds from their franchise fee between the general fund and a separate account. He said in South Portland 50 percent of the franchise fee funded a community television station that aired a monthly program highlighting why business owners chose South Portland for their store location. Vigue said it was a fine line between education and advertising and that it’s important for the programs not to be commercials.

“You can interview business people and talk about a lot of things that don’t have do with prices and products,” Vigue said.

Saco resident Dave Pitman said he is concerned if money the city receives from the franchise fee is moved from the general fund to a separate account, it could result in an increase to the city’s mil rate. He said it will be important to educate the public on the matter.

“People might look at the franchise fee as a veiled tax increase,” Pitman said.

Pinheiro said the three proposed public access channels will broadcast daily information, concerts at Thornton Academy and basketball games among other events.

“If we provide worthwhile content, people will understand they are getting their money’s worth,” Pinheiro said.

Jeff Christenbury, a Thornton Academy representative, said he’s unsure the city and school will be able to provide enough content for three channels running 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Pinheiro said the city has hundreds of volunteers putting in hours every year and that could be a way to help staff the channel, reduce costs and increase programming. Doyle said there is an opportunity for students from Thornton Academy to participate in internships at a public access department and learn to operate equipment.

Saco Parks and Recreation Director Joe Hirsch said there could be a seasonal paid position.

Vigue said there is enough free content online to fill the channels with programming. He said South Portland had a staff member whose only job was to research relevant programs, archive.org and pegmedia.org being two of the most popular sites for free downloadable content.

“The problem is not with finding programming, it’s with finding staff,” Vigue said.

Vigue said it’s important for the city to ask for as much funding, equipment and channels as possible because cable companies have continued to lobby the Federal Communications Commission to reduce the bargaining power of cities.

Pitman said he wanted to know if city attorney Tim Murphy will be involved in negotiations.

Vigue said Spectrum will most likely send its government relations manager to meet Vigue, Pinheiro and Saco City Administrator Kevin Sutherland. Vigue said if negotiations reach an impasse, lawyers will be involved.

“Hopefully it won’t reach that,” Vigue said.

Contact Staff Writer Grant McPherson at news@inthecourier.com

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