By Pat Bywater
WEST MEAD TOWNSHIP —
It appears unlikely that the township will levy a cable franchise fee in the immediate future, a move that would have increased township residents’ Armstrong cable bills.
Supervisor Chairman Bill Rosenberger and Supervisor John Shartle, who had called for residents’ input as they considered the fee, said they had received not one comment in favor and many comments in opposition. During the Board of Supervisors monthly meeting on Tuesday, Rosenberger, who has served several terms on the board, said he could not recall as much resident input on an issue in the years he has served.
“There has been a lot of resistance,” Rosenberger said of the fee, which could have generated as much as $72,000 a year.
“I haven’t had anything positive brought back to me” about the fee, Shartle said.
The third supervisor, Michael Jordan, had previously stated his opposition to the fee. He expressed concern that residents are already facing increased utility fees and gasoline fees in the coming year and he pointed out that the township had been able to balance its budget without cutting services or seeking new revenue for 2014.
While it appears there will be no fee in the immediate future, the supervisors will continue exploring a cable franchise agreement without the fee.
Under federal regulations, municipalities can establish franchise agreements with companies that are not considered utilities that use municipality-owned rights of way to run cables offering services such as television, Internet and telephone to homes and businesses. The agreements lay out who is responsible for what should work in the right-of-way by the cable company cause damage or need repair. Under these agreements, municipalities typically also receive some free service in exchange for granting the right to use rights of way and they can levy a fee of up to five percent on subscribers’ services.
While the issue of a fee appears settled for now, all three supervisors have signaled an interest in having an agreement in place to formalize responsibilities if there is damage to the right-of-way. They are also interested in getting free Armstrong service. It is estimated that the free service may save the township and its two volunteer fire departments as much as $300 a month each, and there has been talk of possibly extending that free service to the Meadville Area Recreation Complex.
While it appears those items would likely be included in a cable franchise agreement, both Rosenberger and Shartle are concerned about the length of any agreement that would not include a fee. Township attorney Alan Shaddinger said that most cable franchise agreements he has seen run for 15 years. Both Rosenberger and Shartle hesitate to close the door for that long on a source of revenue that future supervisors may wish to tap.
Shaddinger has been directed to continue investigating the possibilities and the supervisors have agreed to revisit the issue at a later time yet to be determined.
The supervisors recently began exploring the establishment of a franchise agreement when — after an inquiry from a resident concerned about the quality of his cable television service — they discovered that they did not have a franchise agreement with Armstrong, the sole cable utility operating in West Mead. Having a franchise agreement is not required, but many municipalities have them to take advantage of the benefits.
At a supervisors’ meeting in November, Armstrong general manager Scott Brush explained to the supervisors that the company would not bear the expense of any fee levied under a cable franchise agreement. He said the fee would increase residents’ bills and that it would be broken out on those bills and labeled clearly as a fee set by the township. He urged the supervisors to not impose a fee, claiming it would leave Armstrong at a competitive disadvantage.
Pat Bywater can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at email@example.com.