Amherst to Comcast on contract proposal: Offer not good enough

  • Amherst Town Hall

Staff Writer
Published: 8/18/2016 6:00:39 PM

AMHERST — The town is this week opted to take a hard line with Comcast during negotiations for a new contract, saying the cable company’s current offer is woefully short of capital money and does not address high-definition technology for public access stations.

Dissatisfaction with the 10-year contract proposal from Comcast is prompting town officials to delay signing a deal which they say doesn’t adequately respond to the needs of the Amherst community.

With Comcast offering $950,000 in the new contract, which would go into effect Oct. 16, the Select Board this week voted unanimously to have its attorney continue negotiations with the cable company.

The decision came after the board got feedback from both Cable Advisory Committee Chairwoman Demetria Shabazz and Amherst Media Executive Director James Lescault that the contract proposal falls significantly short of the $2.3 million in capital needs requested.

In addition, Comcast was not committed to high-definition public access, education and government — or PEG channels — or an electronic guide for these channels.

The board voted unanimously to have both David Ziomek, interim town manager, and Paul Bockelman, the permanent town manager starting Monday, “communicate to our counsel that the Select Board is not satisfied with the proposed contract with Comcast because of the need for a more specific understanding about availability of high definition and electronic program guide for PEG channels, and our conclusion that the proposed capital budget does not meet our community’s needs and expectations as expressed through the ascertainment process and our knowledge of community needs.”

The Select Board wants attorney Peter Epstein, of the Boston-based August & Epstein, to come up with a better deal by Sept. 26, the deadline by which it must approve the new contract.

Even though the capital would more than double the $450,000 included in the current contract signed in 2006, Select Board member Andrew Steinberg said the proposal is inadequate, and this needs to be communicated to Comcast in the strongest terms.

The message of the vote for Epstein, said Select Board Chairwoman Alisa Brewer, is the contract is “not good enough, get more.”

The board reached this decision even though Peter Hechenbleikner, who had served as interim town manager through Aug. 1 and spent several months with Epstein negotiating on behalf of the town, recommended adoption, calling it a “good deal.”

But the advisiory committee, Shabazz said, had issues with the proposed agreement.

“We are not yet ready to offer a final recommendation,” Shabazz said.

Lescault said a lot of equipment at Amherst Media’s College Street studios dates to 1991 and reducing the capital requests by $1.37 million would mean continuing to deprive users of modern technology.

Amherst Media would also not be able to supplement the places that it can broadcast live events — currently Town Room at Town Hall, the high school library and the middle school auditorium — by adding the Bangs Community Center, Jones Library, police station and First Floor Meeting Room at Town Hall.

Lescault added that he finds it objectionable that Comcast can come into a community and tell it what it will provide and won’t provide, even though users are bearing the costs.

In fact, Comcast’s own surveys indicated a willingness of customers to pay the higher “franchise-related costs” fees, which are collected monthly from the 7,045 subscribers. These fees could go up from .86 cents to $1.21 per month.

While the board supported going back to the negotiating table, member Constance Kruger said it remains unclear how Amherst can compel Comcast to provide what the town wants.

But board member Douglas Slaughter said the town should at least get an explanation from Comcast, or Epstein, as to why it is unwilling to come closer to what Amherst needs.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.




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