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Bemidji City Council: Upstream TV requests $40K, bumping cable fees for customers

BEMIDJI – The city’s public access television channel has requested the city’s help in expanding and improving its services.

Mike Bredon, the executive director of Upstream TV, appeared before the Bemidji City Council Monday evening to request $20,000 in fees and $20,000 in general fund dollars.

He also asked the council to consider raising the monthly fees charged to local cable customers from 50 cents to $1.

The council took no action on the requests, though the general fund allocation seems unlikely. A committee meeting was scheduled for further discussion next month.

Upstream TV, or UTV, is the city’s nonprofit public access TV station that went live in January on Channel 18, broadcasting 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week programming. It makes available video cameras and video-editing capabilities to the public.

Bredon, on behalf of Upstream TV, requested $20,000 in public education government fees, or PEG fees, which must go toward public, educational or governmental television. The city receives PEG fees as residential cable customers are charged 50 cents each month. Those fees are then remitted to the city.

Bemidji, which receives about $25,000 a year, has about $73,000 available in PEG fees, according to the city.

Additionally, Bemidji also receives funds through cable franchise fees, which are paid by cable companies in return for using city right-of-ways for infrastructure needs, according to the city. That charge is passed onto customers as a “franchise fee” on their monthly cable bills.

The city receives about $140,000 a year in cable franchise fees, according to Ron Eischens, the city’s finance director. Those funds are then put into the city’s general fund to offset local property taxes.

Upstream TV was allocated $30,000 in PEG fees last year to purchase production cameras and computers, a server and master computer and software.

The money also was intended for studio-leasing costs and improvements.

Bredon said, though, that Upstream TV was not able to use those funds toward the studio costs, which hurt the station.

“Though UTV was able to sustain the operational costs without any financial help, it leaves the station unable to grow,” Bredon told the council.

While it is able to operate on a month-to-month basis, UTV is not able to offer the public training and education on using the cameras and editing software as planned, he said.

“We are not being able to perform that task that we had agreed to,” Bredon said.

Eischens said Tuesday that the city determined through its research that PEG fees could not go toward the studio costs because Upstream TV has a three-year lease agreement in place and that timeframe did not meet a requirement as long-term lease.

Bredon said Tuesday that Upstream TV had the city’s help with the first year of the lease but then it was determined that the lease terms didn’t meet the requirements.

While Upstream TV was able to make things work financially to remain operational, Bredon said the loss of operational help hurt the nonprofit as it prepared to move forward and expand.

Upstream TV, after learning it could not use the money toward rent, used the funds for more equipment, Bredon said.

Upstream TV spent more than $29,000 of the PEG fees that were allocated to the nonprofit, according to Eischens.

The council heard Bredon’s requests during its meeting but ultimately decided to refer the matter to the city’s Public Affairs Committee, which, among other things, makes recommendations to the council regarding PEG fees.

That meeting, which is open to the public, was set for 5:30 p.m. Sept. 10.

“This is something that Public Affairs usually sits down and discusses,” said Greg Negard, city councilor.

Bredon more than once pointed out that the council chambers were full of Upstream TV members who wanted to be part of the discussion.

“The community that we serve has questions about the future of these PEG fees,” Bredon said.

In asking the council to consider raising the PEG fees charged to residents, Bredon said the current 50-cent fee is low compared to other cities.

If the PEG fees are raised, Bredon said, the council would need to make that decision prior to Nov. 1 to be put into effect Jan. 1.

Al Felix, city attorney, said that decision could be relayed to the cable companies by letter before Nov. 1. If the council chooses to do so, it would have to raise the fee by ordinance, but that process would not have to be complete by Nov. 1 as long as cable companies were notified.

City Councilor Ron Johnson, also a member of the Public Affairs Committee, said the PEG fees initially were adopted by the city with the goal of improving its government access television channel – Channel 2 – which broadcasts local meetings such as city council and joint planning board.

“There is some rhyme or reason as to what we did and why we established it,” Johnson said. 

Johnson noted that the city’s government access TV needs to be modernized. For instance, residents have requested that meetings be streamed online.

The longer goal, Johnson noted, was to expand into public access television.

While Upstream TV, or public access, came along sooner than the city had expected, Johnson said the two should collaborate with and improve each other.

Upstream TV also requested that the city designate $20,000 in general fund dollars from franchise fees to go toward the operation of the station, but councilors were not enthusiastic, noting that the budget-planning process is well under way.

The council is expected to approve a preliminary levy and budget in September.

“This really should have come to us when we were doing the budget,” Johnson said.

City Councilor Kevin Waldhausen also pointed out that the city has a moratorium in place on donations to nonprofit organizations.

“It’s kind of a Pandora’s box thing,” Waldhausen said. “Where do we draw that line?”