City, BITV clash over shut down

Bainbridge Island Television airwaves went dark months ago, but disagreements are still brewing between the city and the former public access station over money and equipment.

BITV was given 60 days notice last October when the council eliminated its contract and went off air in December. Since then the two entities have been unable to agree on how the nonprofits organization’s assets were distributed. City officials say they are still considering legal options against BITV.

State law gives the city two years to pursue legal options even after the corporation dissolves.

City officials sounded off in March after visiting the vacant Comcast facility where BITV was located on High School Road. Deputy City Manager Morgan Smith said the city expected to find a much larger portion of BITV broadcasting equipment then what was left behind.

Former BITV Executive Director Scott Schmidt stands behind the organization’s closing operations, and says the equipment once used by BITV to broadcast community activities is enjoying a second life at a number of island nonprofit groups.

BITV originally asked for $300,000 in 2011 to cover community programming and city meetings, and later presented a second funding proposal of $138,000 to cover costs. The council had a major budget gap to fill and wanted a proposal within a $50,000 budget.

In the absence of a contract or city willingness to negotiate above $50,000, BITV began the dissolution process per state law.

BITV began paying-off debt, distributing assets and fulfilled its contract through the fourth quarter of 2010. In the months leading up to December, Smith sent repeated emails to Schmidt and members of the BITV board to nail down transition plans. According to a string of city emails in November, the board had trouble finding a BITV contact person as it splintered, and Smith’s questions were bounced around.

Both city officials and Schmidt blame the other party for communication breakdown.

Tense relations were evident, Schmidt said, after the final City Hall broadcasting after city officials hovered over BITV employees to ensure equipment wasn’t taken from the building.

“There is no contract and there is no code or bylaw that says BITV assets belong to the city,” Schmidt said.

City Attorney Jack Johnson disagrees.

The city collects subscriber funds – called Public, Education and Government (PEG) fees – from Comcast Cable Company, which are intended to be used to support public access channels. BITV was hired to manage and provide PEG programming on behalf of the city.

“Nothing in the contract ever gave BITV ownership of that equipment or allowed them to give the equipment to others,” Johnson wrote in an email. “BITV was to transfer ‘its broadcasting assets’ to the city and give only ‘older, non-broadcast equipment’ to other charities. It does not appear that they followed that plan.”

Schmidt said BITV got approval from the state Attorney General’s Office to transfer broadcasting assets to the city, and the rest to other nonprofit agencies.

“The city wanted everything ... our building, our assets and equipment. But we were a nonprofit corporation without a contract that stipulates that language,” said Schmidt. “I would imagine with the next access manager, the city would want language so they can have access to all PEG funded purchases. But they didn’t with us.”

About 20 island nonprofits – including KiDiMu, the historical society, music and church groups – were invited to peruse an open house event and take equipment such as older televisions, computers, cameras,  chairs and lamps. Schmidt estimated the total value of the equipment given to the city was double the value given to all nonprofits combined.

Smith said the city’s only point of reference is a list provided in 2010 of the equipment purchased using restricted, mostly PEG funds, which is much longer then the five or six pieces BITV left for the city.

“But none of that really answers the disagreement about the lump sum [BITV] was given mid-year that we don’t have reconciliation for,” said Smith.

BITV submitted an invoice in September to be paid for the fourth quarter services, Smith said.

“At that time we said we wanted to meet to discuss the reconciliation of PEG fees and the transition away from BITV and the High School Road facility,” said Smith. “In order to consider the invoice we need those things to happen, and our request is still the same.”

Schmidt said BITV is waiting for the $54,906 fourth-quarter invoice to cover the remaining balance in its contract. According to Schmidt, BITV has to pay off debt and taxes, and about $9,000 would be left after the city pays the invoice and BITV fulfills its remaining obligations, which would be donated to One Call for All.

Meanwhile, island organizations are enjoying the use of the television crew’s former tools.

“The people in the community who cared the most about BITV are still enjoying the assets we could share,” said Schmidt. “The city is using the same equipment we used to tape their meetings, so people can still enjoy that too.”

Schmidt said he was impressed by the amount of talent and resources from people who wanted to help the organization. BITV was halfway through its five-year strategic plan, and its goal was to focus on news program to generate funding. Schmidt said he would have liked the chance to negotiate with city about their future.

“PEG-funded access channels were closing around the nation, we knew that, but we thought we could do something different and we wanted to make it work” said Schmidt. “We were making progress. It was disappointing when it was all too little, too late.”

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