Last Monday I spoke at Public Comments at the Board of Selectmen’s meeting to present 4 issues that remain of concern to our organization. I would like to reiterate my concern in this letter about the Cable TV Fund. Further letters will address the others.
Cable TV Fund: HERE ARE SOME OF THE FACTS
- The Town Manager indicated the Franchise Fee split historically was 60% to 40% with 60% going to reduce taxes. Actually, it was 75% to 25% with $246,135 applied to reduce property taxes in 2015, the last year of the 75% / 25% split. 60% / 40% was initially proposed in the 2016 warrant article that was amended to 0% / 100% at Deliberative session.
- This article, #34 on the 2016 ballot, which completely eliminated the portion used to reduce taxes, incorrectly stated that the article would have “no tax impact” and it passed with 55% of the voters in favor. In fact, it resulted in an annual tax increase of over $250,000 that will probably be close to $3 million over 10 years. As the Finance Director correctly pointed out in the October 23, 2017 meeting, “every piece of revenue helps bring your tax rate down.”
- It’s been 20 months since the Cable TV fund has been receiving the additional funds associated with Article 34 and a long-term plan is still a work in progress. The balance in the fund has increased from about $30,000 to an excessive level of $400,000. No date was estimated for completing a plan during the discussion at the November 6th Selectmen’s meeting.
- It has been mentioned on several occasions that there is now a high level technical person, new to the Cable committee, helping to develop a plan, implying that having support from someone with his level of expertise is new. For what it is worth, there has been a high level technical person helping the committee for many years that was paid $8,000 to $10,000 a year out of Cable TV funds through 2016.
- The Part Time position approved by the Selectmen, which Selectmen Waddell applied for and subsequently removed himself from consideration, has been open for over a year now. Somehow SAU90 and other municipalities have managed to fill similar positions.
Our recommendation was to modify the Franchise Fees in the Comcast agreement to reduce them from 4% to 2%, which in effect gives the cable subscribers, who also happen to be taxpayers, a reduction to their monthly cable fee charges. While there is great appreciation for the dedicated Cable Committee staff, there needs to be more leadership and direction. As the money accumulates it will ultimately be squandered on wants versus needs and upgrades such as replacing the chairs in the Selectmen’s room. Until Comcast broadcasts the local channels in hi-def, the picture quality will remain in standard definition. Sure it would be great to improve the sound and that might be the result of better microphones, which should not be a significant expenditure. We also note that SAU 90 is planning on hiring a media coordinator for the school system using funds from the Cable TV Fund. It would make sense to determine how the needs of the Town and School System can be coordinated so we don’t have duplication of efforts. We understand that there are needs, but a plan needs to be developed immediately.
We believe that both the Board of Selectmen and Budget Committee need to step up and manage this situation. It is running with too little direction and oversight, it will become more wasteful as time goes on, a disservice to the taxpayers of Hampton. We recommend a change to the Comcast agreement and if that takes too long to do then a Selectmen’s warrant article is needed next March to reduce the funds the Cable TV Fund receives with a calculation of the surplus that exists returned to the undesignated fund balance to reduce taxes.