City to pursue franchise fees

By Thomas Wilson
STAR STAFF
twilson@starhq.com

   The city of Elizabethton has the green light to pursue legal action against Charter Communications to recover almost $100,000 the city alleges the company owes in delinquent franchise fees.
   The city's complaint revolves around three franchise fee summaries for 1996 and 1997 when the franchise was held by the Marcus Cable Television company.
   "While we realize Charter took over the franchise from Marcus Cable -- which held the franchise during the time in question -- when Charter assumed this franchise, they took on the delinquent fees accrued by Charter," said Charles Stahl, Elizabethton city manager.
   The city alleges that Charter, which assumed the Marcus telecommunication's franchise in a merger two years ago, is delinquent in franchise fees totaling $67,993 during a period between 1996-1997. The city factors in a penalty of 8 percent annually for the 20-month period in question. The total rises to $98,139 in delinquent fees.
   The determination came following an audit conducted for the city by an independent telecommunications advisory group. City attorney, Roger Day told the council he had received "no communication whatsoever" following a letter he sent to Perica in early February 2003.
   In a letter to Stahl dated March 25, 2003, Charter's regional director of operations, Craig Perica, states that in terms of the franchise agreement with the city, the company is " ... not only living up to the requirements, but is exceeding them."
   The franchise agreement states that the company must staff the Elizabethton office at least 20 hours each week. Perica states the company exceeds that minimum by keeping an employee at the office 26 hours per week.
   Charter's Elizabethton officer does not accept return cable converter box returns from customers because as Perica writes, " ... the equipment will not fit through the (drive-up) window. For security reasons, we do not want our representative to leave the office."
   Stahl said the city had commissioned a telecommunications consultant to audit the monthly franchise fee payments for Charter and predecessors from previous years as part of a compliance evaluation process.
   The council also approved by 7-0 a resolution permitting the Rainbow Realty firm to show property in the Cherokee Industrial Park. The council will consider a resolution Thursday allowing Rainbow Realty to show an approximate 5-acre tract of land in the city-owned industrial park.
   According to the request presented before the council, the firm stated that the property would be shown to the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency. The resolution authorizes the city to pay a five percent commission on the total sale price to Rainbow Realty in the event the company effects sale of the property. The real estate firm is not buying the property, but marketing the property for possible sale.
   Stahl said the property consideration was introduced to the Economic Development Commission in March. Sale of the property would also require the approval of City Council.
   The council also approved by 7-0 a resolution to accept three tracts of property donated by East Tennessee Railway (ETRY). The tracts include a 50'x25' strip of land between Broad Street and D Street; 20 feet wide and 10 feet on each side from the center line of the main track from E Street to Elk Street; a triangular parcel of land bounded by Doe Ave., Hattie Ave., and the right of way of ETRY.
   In other business, the council voted 7-0 on first reading of an ordinance amending the city's municipal code granting the city's Board of Zoning Appeals the right to hear appeals from citizens on driveway and curb cut requests.