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,
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
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