Editorial: Amherst officials prudent to seek local broadcast bids

  • Amherst Town Hall GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Monday, March 20, 2017

Town officials are correct in soliciting bids for the community broadcasting services that Amherst Media has provided for 41 years. It’s not a criticism of the job done by the nonprofit, but rather a sound business practice, to offer any competitors a chance to make their pitch.

Town Manager Paul Bockelman says he is following new state procurement regulations which no longer allow about $300,000 a year in operating expenses to be transferred directly from Comcast, which provides cable television service, to Amherst Media, which produces the local public, education and governmental programs. Instead, that money will now be earmarked in the Amherst town budget for local broadcast services.

The new 10-year contract signed by the town with Comcast in October includes $1.125 million in capital expenses, such as improved equipment.

During the past two months, Amherst Media officials, including executive director James Lescault, have argued that since it has been doing business with the town for more than four decades, it should not have to compete with other potential bidders, and that the regulation cited by Bockelman is a recommendation rather than a requirement. Last week, Lescault gave town officials correspondence from the inspector general’s office suggesting that Amherst Media is exempt from the procurement regulation.

However, an auditing firm hired by the town and the state Department of Revenue have given the town written opinions supporting Bockelman’s interpretation. Regardless, it is prudent for the town to periodically review the quality of local broadcast services, especially with more than $4 million for operating and capital expenses at stake.

Bockelman has promised a “highly transparent process” once the town issues a request for proposals. Part of that process is to review any competing proposals, and measure them against the performance of Amherst Media.

Since there has been no dissatisfaction expressed with the current services, we expect that Amherst Media’s track record will be a significant factor in awarding a new contract, which Bockelman hopes to have signed by July 1.

Meanwhile, Amherst Media continues to receive payments from Comcast for its operating expenses, because the town extended the old contract, which expired last October, through June 30.

Select Board members say that going forward they prefer a new contract that initially covers three years, with a pair of three-year renewals. That periodic review of local services makes sense because of rapid changes in the broadcasting industry.

According to Bockelman, that would provide a “couple of check-in points along the way,” though the contract would be written so as not to compromise the stability of community programs. “Our goal is to have a long-term relationship with somebody, and I understand that sensitivity,” he said.

In making the case to renew their contract, Lescault and his colleagues should refrain from rhetoric such as his claim that “Amherst Media’s independence is being threatened by the town.” That obscures what should be a conversation about the accomplishments of Amherst Media and where it sees opportunities to expand its local programs.

We also hope that Lescault provides more details about Amherst Media’s on-again plan to build a new headquarters in downtown Amherst on land it purchased in 2013 near the intersection of Main and Gray streets. Amherst Media at that time announced a $1 million capital campaign to help pay for a 9,000-square-foot building that would cost some $2.5 million. But that campaign never got off the ground, and Amherst Media last year tried to sell the .56 acres for $490,000.

In November, Amherst Media took the property off the market and said it was renewing efforts to build a new studio there with the help of a matching grant offered by the Rotary Club of Amherst. Lescault said the original plan would be scaled back, and that support from local businesses would be sought to help pay for more modest quarters.

That would end the uncertainty faced by Amherst Media since 2010 when it was issued a notice by Eversource to vacate the space it rents on College Street. Amherst Media, which has operated a studio there since 1991, has since negotiated temporary arrangements to stay.

If Amherst Media again is selected as the local broadcaster, we hope that provides impetus for the community support needed to help it pay for a modern studio in its own building at the more central downtown site. That would be a win-win situation for the town and Amherst Media.