OH: Bill forcing Athens to look at fees, rights-of-way

Posted on September 7, 2007 - 6:55am.

from: Athens Messenger

Bill forcing Athens to look at fees, rights-of-way
September 07, 2007

Staff Writer

The passage of a bill in the Ohio Legislature that affected rights-of-way in municipalities and cable franchise fees, among other things, might not be as severe as Athens city officials have feared.

However, the passage of Senate Bill 117 earlier this year has brought some changes that Athens City Council will have to deal with, from the franchise fee the city receives from Time Warner Cable to potential legislation that might have to be enacted to cover the city’s rights-of-way.

Council passed an ordinance at its meeting Tuesday that dealt with the franchise fee, ensuring that the city will continue to receive the 5 percent franchise fee from the cable company. That fee is used for a number of functions, but key among them is the support of the operations of the city’s public access channels.

Athens Law Director Garry Hunter said Tuesday it was necessary for Council to pass the ordinance. Under the state legislation, the city can continue to receive its franchise fee from its contract with Time Warner if it adopts an ordinance authorizing that funding up to the existing level. The contract had expired previously, and the discussions had stalled while both parties were awaiting the outcome of the Senate bill.

Hunter added the details are still murky on the bill, but from what he has read, the city might receive a reduction in the fees paid by Time Warner. He is not certain what fees or how much they could be impacted, however.

Hunter said some of the other changes brought about by the bill include:

• The city can’t require money be provided for equipment.

• Cable companies can transfer service from one city to another without approval of the cities in question.

• Three public, educational and governmental channels are protected in every city, and anything over that number of channels can be moved to a higher tier in the cable lineup at the discretion of the cable provider.

•Cities cannot require the construction of institutional networks, such as those in schools.

• The city can require an audit be done once a year of a cable company, but the city has to pay for it.

• The state of Ohio will now negotiate franchises.

Hunter said that over the past couple of months he has been reviewing other rights-of-way ordinances in cities such as Columbus, Dublin and Worthington, to try and draft one that would work for the city of Athens. One of the things the bill provides for is charging a fee for right-of-way usage, but that fee must reflect the costs to the city if the right-of-way is disturbed. Hunter added that those fees have to be submitted to the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio and justified by the city for approval.

Councilwoman Debbie Phillips added that she hopes to include language about the city’s right-of-way that covers tree trimming as well.

Council and Athens public access officials also expressed concerns in the past when the bill first came to light about some of the requirements for programming of the access channels in cities. Scott Thompson, The Government Channel director, said Wednesday that it looks like the final version of the bill’s requirements were not as bad as they had feared from earlier versions.

“It shouldn’t be a deal-breaker,” he said. “We are going to have to make do and live with it.”

Thompson said from his review of the final bill, three access channels are protected in every community. If the community has four or more channels, those channels are subject to being taken control of by the cable company if they lack a certain amount of local programming. Thompson said he believes that would kick in for less than 24 hours a week of local programming, which is worse than the original bill of 9 1/2 hours.

Thompson said on a busy week, the city’s channels produce an estimated 10 hours of original programming per week. However, Thompson noted that the final bill doesn’t specify what type of programming would be counted as “original,” just as long as it wasn’t repeated. He said a city could most likely get around that requirement by putting up a “traffic cam” or some type of live feed to cover the extra hours.

The majority of the city’s public access programming revolves around government meetings, Thompson said.


( categories: OHIO | State Franchises )