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Jim Kenyon: Lebanon official channeling Trump in yanking agreed-upon money for CATV

  • Jim Kenyon. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Columnist
Published: 6/27/2020 9:27:30 PM
Modified: 6/27/2020 9:27:27 PM

Lebanon City Manager Shaun Mulholland’s move to yank funding from the nonprofit Community Access Television station, better known as CATV, on short notice has something of a Trumpian feel.

Run government like a business. Handshake deals are made to be broken. Lebanon first.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Mulholland owns an autographed copy of Trump: The Art of the Deal.

Last fall, Mulholland agreed to pay CATV’s annual fee — $135,000 in 2020 — to record and distribute video of everything from City Council and Planning Board meetings to poetry readings at AVA Gallery and Art Center and school band concerts. The videos air on Comcast, the cable company that serves Lebanon, and are available online as well.

But in March, CATV was informed the second payment of $67,500 that had been agreed upon months earlier wouldn’t be coming.

Mulholland blamed the economic fallout from the novel coronavirus. Lebanon needed to keep the money promised to CATV to help offset any potential budget shortfalls later in the year, he said.

That’s fine for the city, but what about CATV?

Like many nonprofits, CATV has been hurt by the pandemic, too. The city’s longtime broadcasting partner has lost moneymaking opportunities, starting with having to suspend its summer “video camps” for kids. (Full disclosure: Valley News editor Maggie Cassidy, who was not involved in the editing of this column, is married to CATV’s studio manager and education outreach manager, Chico Eastridge.)

Did Mulholland think about the bind he was putting CATV in? Or did he even care?

“We don’t have the money to do all the things we’d like to do in the community,” he told me.

Mulholland’s decision also impacts the Lebanon School District. CATV has recorded School Board meetings from “gavel to gavel,” as Executive Director Donna Girot says proudly when talking about her nonprofit’s public mission. The public access station has also filmed high school graduations, particularly crucial this year when there wasn’t a public ceremony.

SAU 88 Superintendent Joanne Roberts told me that she’s negotiating with CATV to continue its coverage — money that will presumably have to come out of taxpayers’ pockets.

Mulholland’s decision potentially has ramifications beyond Lebanon. If CATV can’t withstand the revenue hit, the other communities that it serves — Hanover, Hartford, Hartland and Norwich — could also suffer.

The City Council could override Mulholland, but I don’t see that happening. The council also seems to have adopted a let’s-take-care-of-Lebanon-and-forget-everyone-else attitude.

Mulholland, who has overseen the city’s daily operations for 2½ years, has wanted to ax CATV for a while. At a meeting in November, he informed Girot that the city would sever ties with the community access station, effective January 2021.

Obviously, this wasn’t good news for CATV. Lebanon accounts for nearly one-third of the station’s annual budget. But Girot figured the station’s $135,000 payment for 2020 was safe and there was time to muster public support for keeping CATV alive in Lebanon in 2021 and beyond. (The pandemic blew up that plan.)

Girot could make a strong argument that the $135,000 was not the city’s money to begin with since it didn’t come from taxpayers.

Under federal regulations, cable TV companies, including Comcast, collect a small fee from subscribers that shows up in their monthly bills to support “PEG” — public, educational and governmental access TV.

In Vermont, subscriber fees flow directly from cable companies to the state’s community access stations. Vermont’s system doesn’t allow “towns to balance their books” at the expense of public access TV, Girot said.

In New Hampshire, however, cable operators send the money to cities and towns, which in Lebanon amounts to about $150,000 a year. In exchange, the city has given Comcast a right of way to install equipment on public property, under a 2015 franchise agreement.

Federal law doesn’t require Lebanon to pass along the money it receives from Comcast to CATV, Mulholland maintains.

“That’s the misperception,” he told me.

Mulholland might be following the letter of the law, but I’m not so sure about the spirit. As Girot put it, “He has the right not to finance us, but it’s not the right thing to do.”

Some New Hampshire communities still use the so-called franchise fee to support community access stations. Hanover, for instance, pays CATV about $60,000 a year for its services.

CATV, which has been around since 1993, provides the public with a “platform for local, meaningful conversation, debate and education,” Peggy Allen, chairwoman of the nonprofit’s governing board, wrote in a Valley News op-ed last week. “Communicating locally effects real changes at the local and state level. This vital, independent work strengthens our democracy.”

Starting Wednesday, CATV will no longer cover Lebanon.

“We have a much cheaper way to do it,” Mulholland told me.

The city will pay an out-of-state service about $5,000 a year to stream all its public meetings online via two remote-controlled cameras located inside the council’s meeting room.

Interactive technology will also allow people to participate in meetings without having to “drive to City Hall,” Mulholland said.

It sounds great. Except for folks who don’t own a computer or smartphone. At the very least, they’ll have to buy a streaming device to hook up to their TV.

Even with the big blow to its finances, compliments of Lebanon, Girot assured me that CATV isn’t going away. The organization will dip into savings to help cover 2020 expenses. Private fundraising will also be stepped up.

“Our mission will continue,” she said. “This is too important.”

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.




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