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Cable customers could see bills rise

January 28, 2004|by TARA REILLY

tarar@herald-mail.com

The general manager of Antietam Cable said Tuesday its customers might see a $3 to $5 increase in their monthly bills if the Washington County Commissioners approve an agreement aimed at providing governments, schools and other agencies with high-speed Internet access.

"I think the customers need to decide on this," Antietam Cable General Manager Gene Hager said by phone.

The County Commissioners voted 3-2 to seek bids for a consultant to study whether a cable franchise agreement would be a good idea for the county. The $20,000 study also would state how an agreement would be put in place.

Cable customers would pay for the faster government service through a tax on their cable bills.

Commissioners Vice President William J. Wivell and Commissioner John C. Munson opposed seeking bids for the study.

The Washington County Public Network, which includes library, city and school officials, proposed the cable franchise agreement to the commissioners.

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Hagerstown Finance Director Al Martin, who is a member of the network, said an agreement would benefit all county residents.

A franchise agreement would give county government and schools high-speed Internet access, faster electronic communication with other government bodies and revenue to set up local television channels and other educational services.

Hagerstown, which has had a franchise agreement with Antietam Cable since 1967, charges 50 cents per cable subscriber per month to go toward Channel 6. Channel 6 airs city council meetings and provides other information about city issues.

That tax generates about $80,000 a year, Martin said.

The city also collects a 5 percent franchise tax per cable subscriber every month, which brings in about $315,000 a year, he said.

About 13,000 city residents subscribe to Antietam Cable, Martin said.

Martin said the county would have to discuss with a consultant which cable companies it would enter into agreements with. Cable companies are required by federal law to negotiate with governments who want franchise agreements, Martin said.

Both Martin and Hager said that whether a cable company is required to accept such an agreement would need to be discussed.

Hager said he didn't think Antietam Cable customers should have to pay for the agreement.

"It should be spread throughout the whole tax base," Hager said.

The county should consider taxing subscribers of satellite services as well, he said.

Munson said he opposed an agreement, calling the fee cable customers would pay a "hidden tax."

"It's really a spineless way to raise taxes on the citizens," Wivell said.

Commissioner James F. Kercheval said he thought the commissioners should consider a franchise agreement.

"I think we're really missing the boat," he said.

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