Scandia, Columbus consider pulling plug on LATV

Their withdrawal would dissolve Forest Lake Cable Commission


Just as the Forest Lake Cable Commission (FLCC) began ramping up preparations for franchise renewal negotiations, word broke early this month of a development that could dissolve the commission and potentially shutter Lakes Area Community Television (LATV).

Scandia and Columbus are considering withdrawing from the FLCC. Those two communities, along with Forest Lake, run the FLCC through a joint powers agreement which dates to 2007. The agreement would remain intact if any one of the member cities withdraws, but two members pulling out would force the FLCC to dissolve.

In the worst-case scenario, the FLCC would have a six-month window to wrap up its obligations as well as those of LATV, which broadcasts public access channels 10 and 20 locally on the Midcontinent cable network. Each city would then need to negotiate its own franchise agreement with Midcontinent.

In such a case, Forest Lake would be left to determine whether to use funds from its own franchise fee to operate a slimmed-down version of LATV, contract for such services with another entity, or follow suit of the other former FLCC members and redirect the funds to other purposes.

The resulting reduction or elimination of Public, Educational and Governmental (PEG) access cable would be a significant blow to the entire area, argues LATV access coordinator Sarah Chatwin, noting the station’s extensive coverage of city meetings, youth sports, community events and the like.

“None of that we could do and I think that’s really unfortunate for the community because that’s how people get aware of what’s going on,” she said.

Out of the blue

Word of the withdrawal discussions came as a huge shock to Chatwin and several members of the six-person commission, especially given the timing. FLCC has been ramping up for a once-in-15-years franchise renewal process ahead of the expiration of the cities’ current agreements at the end of the year. To that end, the commission hired a lawyer in March and a consultant in May.

“I think it’s unfortunate timing, really,” Chatwin said. “This was a very sudden move and the staff was not expecting this.”

The Columbus City Council discussed the situation at a July 11 meeting but took no action. Chatwin presented at the meeting.

Scandia appears a step ahead in the process. That city council was set to vote this Tuesday on a resolution calling for the termination of the FLCC. The resolution is contingent upon the Columbus council taking similar action. Chatwin planned to attend the Scandia meeting and submitted in advance a document outlining her desire for the FLCC to remain intact.

Chatwin said she was unaware of the collaboration that must have taken place between officials in the two communities.

“Maybe it’s something they’ve thought about for a long time that they just didn’t share with staff or myself,” she said. “In the commission meetings everyone was going forward in good faith…I thought we were really moving forward.”

Each community has two members on the FLCC: a government official and a representative of the public. Columbus is represented by council member Denny Peterson and Steve Brunsberg. Scandia is represented by Mayor Randall Simonson, while City Administrator Anne Hulbert serves as the public member.

Peterson feels Forest Lake benefits more from LATV than the other communities it serves.

“In my opinion, Forest Lake should take it over and continue it with the schools, if they want it to be continued,” he said.

Hulbert acknowledged she is in a tough position on this issue as she weighs her feelings as a member representing the public against her duty to lay out the situation for the Scandia City Council. She said the idea for Scandia to leave the FLCC stems from Simonson. The mayor said he did not want to comment until after Tuesday’s council meeting.

Franchise fee funds make up the bulk of LATV’s $169,925 budget. Midcontinent pays each city for the right to install and manage cable systems. Columbus turns 88 percent of its franchise fee dollars over to LATV, while Scandia remits 100 percent of its franchise fees to the station.

In contrast, communities that are not part of a cable commission, like Wyoming, are able to use the franchise fees for other purposes as they see fit.

LATV’s need for technology upgrades down the road may also play a role in its fate. The commission hired the consultant to conduct a PEG assessment, which is a common study used for visioning purposes. The report’s findings, which the FLCC was due to receive at its regular meeting this Wednesday, will outline recommendations for such capital improvements.

Peterson said that if the assessment shows LATV needs significant equipment upgrades, Midcontinent should step forward with assistance.

Impact on Forest Lake

If its two partners force the dissolution of the FLCC, Forest Lake would be left to chart an unexpected course. City Administrator Aaron Parrish outlined three options during a city council workshop on Wednesday, July 11.

The city could use its franchise fee dollars – which totaled just over $100,000 in 2011 – to run LATV in-house. The city currently retains 12 percent of franchise fees, so there may be closer to $90,000 available for such an effort.

“We could take that and try to do it on our own,” Parrish said. “That isn’t a real practical scenario. Their labor structure is much different than our labor structure. Not only would you have less money going into it, you would have much less hours going into it.”

A second option would be to contract with a non-profit for public access services under a structure similar to what the city has with the Lakes Area Youth Service Bureau.

Thirdly, the city could choose to go without PEG access cable and keep the franchise fee funds.

“Certainly there is some value added to Public, Educational and Governmental access, but the question is, in the absence of partnership, ‘Can you continue to do that?’” Parrish said.

In any case, the franchise renewal negotiations would likely be tougher absent the FLCC.

“It’s much better for us to do that as a group even if there is some future potential for dissolution of the commission,” Parrish said. “Right now isn’t the time to do that, just because we have more negotiating power.”

Parrish estimated that at least $25,000 has already been spent by the FLCC in preparation of the negotiations and said the overall price would increase if each community ends up hiring its own lawyer.

Council member Jackie McNamara, who is Forest Lake’s governmental representative on the FLCC, feels the city is in full support of LATV.

“I have not heard any rumors to the contrary,” she said.

Issues for aftermath

The joint power agreement calls for a two-year notice to be given if one member city leaves the FLCC on its own. The FLCC would continue to function as a four-member board without representation from the withdrawn community.

Dissolution may be a more likely outcome as it would go into effect immediately. In its aftermath, a laundry list of issues would need to be resolved. Assets would distributed in proportion to each member’s percentage of the total capital contributions. Each municipality’s franchise ordinance would continue, though the agreements are all set to expire by the end of 2012.

The cities would have to find other means by which to have governmental meetings broadcast. It is unlikely that LATV, if continued by Forest Lake, would be broadcast to Scandia and Columbus.

“If Scandia and Columbus don’t want the station and don’t want us to film in their area and don’t want us to film their city meetings, then why would we send them our signal?” Chatwin said. “That’s unfortunate because we’ve done features with their local businesses. Not a lot of people have access in Columbus and Scandia but a lot of other people view the station to see what’s going on in those cities.”

LATV is one year into a five-year lease for its office space at 24260 Greenway Ave N. in Wyoming. If a clause exists in the fine print that would prevent FLCC from having to continue to make payments, Chatwin and McNamara both are unaware of it.

The station currently employs the equivalent of 2.5 full-time staff positions for production, programming, Web site maintenance and administrative duties. LATV Channel 10 was established in 1985 and broadcasts local news, special events coverage and original shows. The station’s Ranger 20 channel was established in August of 2010 and acts as the area’s education channel, airing shows directly related to student happening in the Forest Lake Area School District, St. Peter’s Catholic Church, Lakes International Language Academy, and North Lakes Academy.

McNamara worries about the effects of a potential void in such programming.

“The commission is really about the two local access channels,” she said. “I think it’s going to be sadly missed. You’re not going to have that [sense of] community.”

Chatwin, who took the access coordinator job in January, feels the debate is stirring just as LATV is on the rise. She notes that the station has developed a significant online presence including video on demand and is working to offer live streaming of city meetings.

Plus, Chatwin adds, membership has increased several months in a row. As of June, Midcontinent had cable in 2,432 households in Forest Lake, 252 in Columbus and 201 in Scandia.

“This isn’t a decision that I can make,” she said. “I can only say to the councils that I think this is unfortunate timing and I think the station has come a long way in six months.”

Parrish has also reached out to officials from the neighboring communities.

“We’ve encouraged them to consider what they’re doing here,” he said. “…There’s probably more questions than answers right now, but again, maybe there will be some reconsideration.”

Columbus reporter Paul Rignell contributed to this article.