The folks from Comcast were burning up the phone lines within minutes of the end of my guest-host stint on the radio a week ago (also known as The Day People Changed the Station).
A caller had asked about those elusive franchise fees that Columbia County commissioners want to tap into by incorporating and consolidating county government. I'm afraid my wholly inadequate answer had more gaps in it than the playlist of a Christian Gangsta Rap station.
That, then, explained the immediate follow-up call from Bill Botham, the public relations and government affairs poobah at Comcast. He wanted to be sure to point out that the cable television provider, and all of the cable franchises serving Columbia County - Knology and Charter - already pay franchise fees to Columbia County.
In fact, the next payment is due soon. The latest check from Comcast to Columbia County arrived a year ago, for $314,724. That amount, Botham says, represents 3 percent of the company's revenues from Columbia County subscribers for 2004, the previous year. (The county could charge a maximum of 5 percent, by the way.)
With the exception of cable television fees, counties can't charge local franchise fees to utilities, and can't receive money from them; only cities have that authority. In their sales pitch for creating a new city by incorporating and consolidating Columbia County, commissioners have laid out a plan that would pull in an estimated $5 million per year from additional franchise fees - mainly from electricity and telephone services.
That $5 million would be used to make annual payments on about $30 million that the county would borrow to pay for some unmet infrastructure needs - fixing drainage problems, running new water lines, putting in a Jacuzzi at the government complex.
Columbia County taxpayers are right, of course, to ask: Are they really putting in a Jacuzzi at the government complex? To which I answer: Probably not.
Seriously, to those who believe they're already giving the government enough money, it doesn't matter what it would be spent on - though the folks in the less-populated areas of Columbia County are very much concerned that not enough of that new money would be spent on them.
Worrying about how theoretical money would be spent is getting the cart way ahead of the horse, anyway. It reminds me of when we were kids and used to think up awesome names for our rock bands, even though none of us could actually play any instruments. Or how, as adults, we make grand plans for spending the millions we won't get from the lottery we'll never win.
The theoretical money from theoretical bonds financed by franchise fees would start pouring in only if the county incorporates and consolidates - and that change is looking more and more purely theoretical every day.
State Rep. Ben Harbin, who repeated on the radio things that he'd already been sharing with me days before, has made it pretty clear that the legislative delegation wants to see a thorough study of any and all consolidation "theoreticals" before they move forward on it.
Consolidation cannot happen without action from the legislative delegation to set up a county referendum on the issue. Then, consolidation still can't happen unless the voters approve that referendum.
Until all that happens, Columbia County citizens can entertain themselves by watching the hijinks of the consolidated Richmond County government meetings on cable television. If they're lucky enough, from their Jacuzzi.
(Barry L. Paschal is publisher of The Columbia County News-Times. E-mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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