Thursday, June 24, 1999

Cable providers OK under budget

Contracts would bar more fees

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Local cable access organizations that derive much of their operating funds from local right-of-way fees have been given a reprieve, at least for the moment.

        After a Tuesday meeting with about 25 representatives from local jurisdictions, cable access groups and other public utilities, state Sen. Louis Blessing, R-Colerain Township, added a grandfather clause to pending legislation that would leave existing cable franchise contracts intact until they expire.

        Attached to the pending Ohio budget June 10, the amendment would prevent local governments from charging utilities and cable providers for their use of public rights-of-way — underground and above ground areas used by these companies to run wires and pipes.

        But in some communities, such as Norwood and Forest Park, local franchise agreements stipulate access fees as the means of financing local cable stations and merge what could otherwise be separate ways of raising revenue.

        The “corrective” language also clarifies that franchise fees — a payment a cable provider makes to a jurisdiction in order to provide service to that area — are not affected by the proposal.

        “I feel we have gained some ground and we can claim a modest victory in having raised the red flag on this issue, but there is still more we need to do,” said Tom Bishop, executive director of Norwood Community Television and head of the Ohio and Kentucky chapters of the Alliance for Community Media.

        The amendment now honors all local franchise agreements made prior to Dec. 31, 1998. Any after that date will be subject to the law upon its passage, said Aaron Ockerman, a legislative aide to Sen. Blessing.

        The amendment will be considered for inclusion in the state budget bill by a joint house committee today and the overall budget bill should be approved by Monday, he added.

        Mr. Bishop said some areas of contention remain in the amendment, including what some perceive as an attempt to restrict home rule.

        He pointed to another clause revoking any “non-monetary compensation or free service” requirements a jurisdiction may impose on a cable provider.

        Such “non-monetary compensation,” he said, covers the facilities and equipment needed to broadcast. These typically have been provided by cable companies.

        Nevertheless, Mr. Ockerman said the senator is “comfortable with the language as amended and would like to see it become part of the budget.”

        “But he understands it is a big issue and plans to introduce further legislation over the summer and have public hearings at that time.”


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