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Committee approves Upstream TV request for more city funding

BEMIDJI -- The city of Bemidji's Public Affairs Committee recommended the City Council approve a $2,141 request from local public access television station Upstream TV Monday, but took no direct action on a much larger request.

In addition to the public education government fees, or PEG fees, Upstream asked for $40,300 in city franchise fee revenue, which is made up of fees assessed to cable providers that operate in Bemidji for the right to use city land. Although committee chairman Reed Olson said Monday's meeting was the Public Affairs Committee's first in more than a year, the committee voted to schedule another meeting, possibly for next month, to discuss Upstream further.

In a written report to the Council, Upstream admitted its money difficulties are worsening.

"The financial position of the organization has continued to weaken," the report said.

Upstream Executive Director Mike Bredon said after the meeting the organization sometimes had to choose which bills it would pay, and its access to telephone service had been cut off on several occasions.

PEG fees make up a portion of cable customers' bills and have so far been the main source of city funding for Upstream. However, by law PEG fees are limited to just capital expenses for things like new equipment. That means Upstream can't spend the PEG revenue it gets from the city on operating expenses, like paying phone and internet bills. It has more choice on how it can spend franchise fees. However, City Finance Director Ron Eischens said the franchise fee revenue is already spoken for.

"That money is part of the general fund budget, committed to general fund services," he told the committee.

Upstream has seen prior success with securing city funding so far in its two years of existence.

In 2013, the City Council approved a capital funding request from Upstream TV for almost $20,000 worth of cameras, microphones, tripods and editing equipment. Upstream was also allocated $30,000 in PEG fee revenue before January 2012, when it went live.

The city collects roughly $25,000 every year in PEG fees, Eischens said. Bredon said the Monday PEG request was going toward a "switcher" to allow for multiple camera angles during Upstreams' coverage of live shows, and additional storage drives to archive digital HD footage.

In addition to Upstream's financial issues, there was discussion at the meeting about Upstream combining with educational and government TV programs operating in Bemidji. Committee members also talked about the station "co-locating" in a different building, possibly with other media organizations. Upstream is currently located in the basement of Brigid's Cross Pub, which Councilman Ron Johnson thought it may be a disincentive for families looking to use Upstream's equipment.

"It's pretty hard for families to think about ... the basement of a tavern, or a bar," he said. "That fact is, it's not as accessible as the basement of a bank, where ... you can drop off your teenage kids."

Bredon was in favor of moving to a city-owned building, noting Upstream's current space lacks handicap-accessible entrances.

"It bothers me calling it public access (television) when there's no handicap accessibility," he said.

Zach Kayser
Zach Kayser covers local government and city issues for the Pioneer. He previously worked for the Wadena Pioneer Journal, and is an alumni of the University of Minnesota, Morris. 
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