amherstma.gov - News & Announcements

Posted on: March 8, 2017

Public Access, Education and Government Television

In recent weeks there have been many questions about the renewal of the Town’s contract with Amherst Media including why the Town decided to issue a request for proposals and not immediately engage in negotiations with the current provider.  The Select Board recognizes the service that Amherst Media has provided for many years and continues to provide.  The law and accounting requirements require that we cannot proceed as the Town did ten years ago.

The last contract with Amherst Media expired on October 15, 2016.  While Amherst Media counts the number of days that it is operating without a contract, the Town continues to provide funding and Amherst Media continues to serve our community with public access, education, and government programs on Comcast channels 12, 15 and 17 and by streaming programs through the Internet.  This is known as PEG services.  Even though the Town and Amherst Media continue to meet our respective obligations according to the terms of the 2007 contract, the Town offered to extend that agreement in writing.

The funds that enable the Town to support PEG services are from our contract with Comcast.  A small portion of bills for cable service is provided to the Town to support local PEG services, operating costs and equipment.  Every ten years, the Town negotiates a new contract for a cable service provider for Amherst homes and businesses.  A significant part of that negotiation was about the amount that will be assessed to customers to support PEG programming and the equipment needs of the Town and the PEG provider.

The contract negotiations extended for more than a year, a process that became more difficult because we had four people in the Town Manager positon during that period following the death of John P. Musante.  The Town Managers were assisted by a Cable Advisory Committee, which included several members of the Amherst Media Board.  The Town also appreciates the assistance provided by Amherst Media to provide information about projected technology needs and associated costs.  In August, the Select Board became more involved with the negotiations with Comcast, and we were able to agree to a contract in September for the period from October 16, 2016 through October 15, 2026.

Ten years ago, the Town entered into a similar cable service contract that began on October 16, 2006.  The Town and Amherst Community Television (now Amherst Media) entered into negotiations and signed a contract on February 16, 2007.  This became more complicated for this renewal because on January 16, 2016 the state Department of Revenue, which regulates how Massachusetts cities and towns account for revenues and expenses, issued new guidelines about accounting for cable television PEG funds.  The new accounting procedures must be implemented by June 30, 2017.  According to the new guidelines, these funds must be accounted for as Town funds and are to be income and expenses of the Town.  This has been confirmed by consultation with the Department of Revenue and the accounting firm that advises the Town’s and conducts our annual audit.

Amherst Media’s Executive Director suggested to the Select Board that there is an alternative to having the funds from Comcast recorded as Town revenue.  He suggested that we could seek to amend the Comcast contract so that funds for PEG service are paid directly to the PEG provider.  The Select Board has not discussed this but would need to consider whether that is compliant with the new Department of Revenue requirement, whether it would be advisable or possible to amend the agreement with Comcast, and whether it is a responsible means for expending more than $4,000,000 from cable customers in Amherst.

The Select Board, on behalf of the Town, must comply with legal requirements and sound financial management practices.  For two reasons, that means that we must publicly issue a notice that the Town seeks proposals to provide PEG services and consider all proposals submitted.  First, public procurement law requires that we do so.  Second, the current amount available to fund operations is in excess of $300,000 per year.  In addition, Comcast will provide $1,125,000 during the ten years to meet equipment needs of the Town and its PEG provider.  This is a significant amount of money and any agreement for spending such a large amount of public funds must be done openly and carefully.

There is an additional issue that Amherst Media brought to the Select Board.  Normal procurement agreements made by cities and towns, according to State `law, cannot exceed three years.  Amherst Media, as a nonprofit corporate entity, needs to be able to plan and have assurance of funding in order to obtain financing for such needs as the lease or purchase of space for its operations.  They have purchased land and its Board would like to construct a building.  We are considering whether a longer contract term than three years is possible and advisable.  But both the Town and Amherst Media, or any PEG provider, must consider that much can change between now and 2026 that will affect Comcast, the Town, and the PEG provider.  The means for production and distribution of entertainment are changing rapidly.  Because of what is happening in Washington, laws and government finances may change in significant ways that we cannot predict.  Board and staff changes could materially affect a provider’s goals and operations.

To help us develop a new agreement for PEG services, we need to know what programming on the Education and Government channels is most important.  We urge everyone to respond to a survey on the News and Announcements section of the Town web site, www.amherstma.gov.  The survey does not ask about program expectations for public access channel 12 because it would be inappropriate for the Town to influence those decisions, including through a contract.

The Town Manager and Select Board are fulfilling our responsibility to serve this community.  We respect Amherst Media’s desire to continue to serve our community and enjoy financial stability.  But we must proceed according to law, sound management practice, and in the best long-term interests of this community.

 Amherst Select Board

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