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Whatcom to restart negotiations with Comcast over franchise fees

In this Sept. 17, 2015 photo, Comcast trucks are parked in a lot in the company’s Westford, Mass. operations center. Whatcom County let its franchise fee agreement with Comcast lapse and will renegotiate it.
In this Sept. 17, 2015 photo, Comcast trucks are parked in a lot in the company’s Westford, Mass. operations center. Whatcom County let its franchise fee agreement with Comcast lapse and will renegotiate it. AP

Five years after an agreement with Comcast lapsed, Whatcom County administration will restart negotiations on the document, which dictates, among other things, how much is collected in franchise fees.

County Deputy Executive Tyler Schroeder told Whatcom County Council members Tuesday, Feb. 23, he and deputy prosecuting attorney Dan Gibson would meet with the cable company, also known as Xfinity, the first week of March to get the ball rolling.

“Even though the agreement expired, we’ve continued to get the franchise fees,” Schroeder explained to the council during an afternoon committee meeting. “We haven’t seen a strict impact not having the agreement in place, but we do now see it’s time to move forward.”

Schroeder told the council he expected to ask Comcast to audit the last couple years worth of franchise fees to ensure the county was paid the correct amount.

Franchise agreements spell out how much the cable company has to pay in fees in exchange for the ability to use a county or city’s publicly owned right of way to deliver its services. Franchise fees are charged to customers.

The now-expired Whatcom County agreement included additional protections for customers (as allowed by federal law) by requiring a baseline standard for the cable services offered, and requiring the cable giant to report the number of customer complaints it receives.

The 1996 document granted TCI Cablevision the right to operate in the county under certain guidelines for 15 years. Comcast inherited that agreement as part of a company merger.

As written, it dictates Comcast pay 4 percent of its gross revenues in the unincorporated portions of the county, to the county treasurer each quarter.

Though the agreement lapsed in 2011, the county continues to receive quarterly franchise fee payments and a reporting of revenues.

They send a report that shows they had 34 total complaints for the county (in 2014). Well I probably had 34 myself.

Michael Kominsky, Comcast customer

He requested the county provide policy guidance for the negotiations via council staff.

“We don’t want to negotiate something we think is good, then find out it’s not what you want at all,” Gibson said.

Some council members asked Schroeder and Gibson to look to recently completed agreements for guidance. Bellingham updated its agreement with Comcast in 2011, and Ferndale updated its agreement in 2009.

Council member Barbara Brenner asked anyone who was interested in drafting questions to do so and send them to the council.

Renewed focus on agreement

It appears the county and cable company had attempted to renegotiate in recent years, but staff members working on the deal for both entities retired during the process, and no one stepped in to finish their work, Gibson said.

The matter came back to the attention of the county in part because county resident Michael Kominsky looked into the agreement after getting upset with his own experiences as a Comcast customer.

Kominsky, who worked for TCI from 1982 to 1990 and negotiated franchise agreements as part of his duties, questioned the county’s ability to collect franchise fees without a valid agreement, and wanted to see copies of the required customer complaint logs.

But Comcast hadn’t provided the complaint logs to the county.

When asked, the company provided logs that showed Whatcom County residents made between 19 and 34 “escalated video complaints” each year from 2010 to 2014.

“There’s no follow-up,” Kominsky said in an interview. “They send a report that shows they had 34 total complaints for the county (in 2014). Well I probably had 34 myself. It’s just not possible.”

Samantha Wohlfeil: 360-715-2274, @SAWohlfeil

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