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Council to consider transfer of TCI to AT&T

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by Karen E. Culp

SBJ Staff

City Council must vote on a transfer of ownership of Springfield's cable system from TCI to AT&T within 120 days.

That 120 days expires Dec. 15, and council has a resolution on its agenda for the Dec. 14 meeting that approves the transfer, with conditions. However, those conditions are the source of some contention between the city and TCI.

During the luncheon, TCI's local general manager, Ross Summers, asked the council for more time to work out the details of the resolution, saying there were some points the cable company would like to negotiate.

At a council luncheon Dec. 8, city staff outlined the terms of the resolution, which, among other things, asks TCI to stop "the improper assessment and collection of late fees in violation of the franchise," according to the resolution.

The city is also asking for those fees to be refunded to customers within 90 days.

The resolution also asks that TCI charge no more than its actual cost to handle delinquent accounts, instead of charging the $4 maximum the franchise allows automatically.

The resolution also calls for TCI to step up its residential service, and that it have sufficient staff to answer phones and build out cable plant to new subdivisions in Springfield.

The city is also asking that its dispute over franchise fee payment with TCI be resolved.

The city says it is owed more than $300,000 in franchise fees from TCI; TCI has disputed the amount.

The resolution also asks that AT&T not reduce the "level, mix and quality of personnel within (TCI of Springfield) for a period of 36 months" following the approval of the transfer of ownership.

The cable company must also supply the city with copies of requests for service from any subscriber or potential subscriber that will not be completed within seven working days of the request.

Nancy Yendes, assistant city attorney, said the council may be amenable to taking more time with TCI, but that the 120-day deadline is the day following the council meeting, and the city staff has asked TCI to provide it with a means of extending the deadline.

"We've asked them to talk to the powers that be on that, and to get back to us about a possible extension.

"We would be willing to continue the negotiations if there's some authority that allows us to extend beyond that deadline," Yendes said.

Councilman Gary Gibson said the council will have to take action one way or another at the Dec. 14 meeting.

"I can't see us extending it beyond our Jan. 4 meeting, if we do decide to extend. I can understand that TCI needs some more time with it because we've only presented this to them this week, but then staff has been working with them for some time now on this proposal," Gibson said.

One of the issues TCI disputes is the charge regarding improper assessment of late fees in the resolution. Yendes said the matter came to her attention through her own bill, on which she was assessed a $4 administrative charge, inappropriately labeled, she said, because it was actually a late fee, and because a local attorney has approached the city twice with a similar concern.

"When we began to look at it, we discovered that last month alone TCI earned $20,000 in late fees. That's more than some of its premium channels generate," Yendes said.

"Our auditors also showed that one out of every 10 rate payers is late. I don't think that's possible in this market where everyone is always telling us people are good about paying their bills on time," she added.

The cable franchise calls for TCI to assess a late fee after 30 days.

"They cannot impose a late fee until you are 30 days beyond the due date on your bill, and they've been imposing a charge earlier than that and calling it an administrative fee.

"A lot of people go ahead and pay that without knowing that it is a late fee," Yendes said.

Summers said another item the cable franchise would like to discuss is that the city wants TCI to have some local control over finances, going so far as to have local checking accounts so that money can be paid right out of its local office.

"Funds flow from our corporate office. That's the way we're set up and the way it works best for us. It's better to have corporate control," Summers said.

Both Yendes and Gibson said the customer-service aspect of the resolution was the most important, and that TCI is not answering phones as efficiently as it could and not extending service to new subdivisions as quickly as it should.

Summers said the cable company is now getting plats from the city for new subdivisions and that he feels the company has "more of a jump on the new areas we need to serve."

The amount of franchise fees owed to the city by TCI is still in negotiation, Yendes said, and may eventually go to mediation.

The merger between telecommunications companies AT&T and TCI will probably not be complete until the end of the first quarter or the beginning of the second quarter of calendar 1999, Summers said.

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