Pictured, from left, is city recorder Randy Sanders, mayor Robbie Skinner and councilman Jack Reger.

City’s TV/Cable Board to consider Optimum franchise renewal agreement within the next three months

BUCKHANNON – A city board will soon consider renewing a proposed franchise agreement with Upshur County’s primary television cable provider in the City of Buckhannon.

At its most recent meeting April 6, Buckhannon City Council voted to forward a request from  Altice USA/Cequell III Communications II, LLC – now operating as Optimum – to renew its franchise agreement within city limits to Buckhannon’s TV/Cable Board.

The current franchise agreement is set to expire June 30, 2023. Optimum is a U.S.-based telecommunications company owned and operated by Altice USA/Cequel III Communications II.

City council’s referral to its TV/Cable Board comes nearly two-and-a-half years after city officials received an initial letter from the telecommunications company, then doing business as Suddenlink, expressing interest in renewing its franchise agreement in Buckhannon when the agreement expired June 30, 2023.

According to that Sept. 8, 2020 letter, officials with Altice USA, the parent company of what was then Suddenlink, said telecommunications companies must notify municipalities of their intent to seek franchise renewal 30 to 36 months before the expiration of the current franchise.

The September 2020 letter highlighted issues community members had been experiencing with Suddenlink’s programming and service, igniting questions about whether the city should renew the franchise agreement and whether it had the power to negotiate the terms of that agreement.

After receiving the letter – in addition to a slew of complaints from residents — mayor Robbie Skinner convened a Sept. 30, 2020 Television Cable Board meeting to collect input from the public. Residents’ comments and complaints were documented and forwarded to Altice USA, but no further action was taken at the time.

(However, because Upshur County Commission’s franchise renewal agreement in the county was set to expire that year, in 2020, the Upshur County Commission did adopt an ordinance granting a non-exclusive franchise renewal agreement with Suddenlink/Altice USA.)

With the June 30, 2023 date approaching, three items related to the franchise renewal agreement appeared on city council’s April 6 agenda, the first of which was to appoint Peggy Ball to the city’s TV/Cable Board following several board member resignations.

“We’ve had a couple of resignations from our TV cable board, and so I have one name, and [if council approves that person], we will still have one vacancy after this that I will need to ask your blessing on,” Skinner said. “But tonight, I have a name of someone who has agreed to serve on the TV cable board, and that would be Peggy Ball.”

Councilman David McCauley made a motion to approve Ball, which passed unanimously. Council is set to consider appointing James Trivolette to the TV/Cable Board at its meeting this Thursday, April 20.

Council also voted unanimously to forward a proposed cable television franchise renewal agreement with Altice/Cequel III Communications II to the TV/Cable Board at the April 6 meeting. During the discussion, councilwoman Pam Bucklew asked about the length of the term of the agreement.

City attorney Tom O’Neill, who accepted a position as the senior director of government affairs for Optimum last year, said the term of the franchise agreement could be negotiated as part of the process.

“It can be five; it could be 10; it could be somewhere in between,” O’Neill said. “It’s really up to the council.”

Skinner said TV/Cable Board meetings are open to the public, and one will be scheduled as soon as the latest board vacancy is filled. McCauley noted, though, that the ability of governmental entities to regulate TV/cable rates is limited.

“Before the folks in the community get fired up – because I’ve dealt with this ever since I came to Buckhannon 40 years ago – we, as a governmental entity, as the franchising entity, cannot regulate rates, and we cannot regulate programming, so there’s very little municipalities can do,” he said.

Skinner said the franchise renewal agreement “is basically an allowance [for Altice USA/Optimum] to do business in our city.”

McCauley said it’s challenging to negotiate with telecommunications companies because of the intricacies involved in proving that a cable provider isn’t meeting Federal Communications Commission standards.

“In order to show that a cable provider is not doing what it needs to do under FCC standards, there would be a myriad of complexities that we would never be able to meet relative to the current operation, as angry as we sometimes get about programming [and service],” he said.

Finally, council tabled a discussion about a lease agreement between the city and Altice USA/Cequel III Communications II, involving the telecommunication company’s storage of equipment on North Buckhannon Water Tank Hill. That agreement expires May 31, 2023 – just one month prior to the expiration of the franchise agreement.

City recorder Randy Sanders made a motion to table considering the lease agreement because the city had not received the proposed agreement, and it passed unanimously.

City administrative director and finance manager Amberle Jenkins said the agreement enables Altice USA/Cequel III Communications II to property owned by the city where it keeps its equipment.

In other business, city council approved a 4.9 percent fixed-rate financing quote from Citizens Bank of West Virginia to pay for seating and its installation at the Colonial Arts Center. The financing involves a fixed-rate, three-year loan for approximately $174,500.

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