Council ups funds for BITV, resolving dispute

At most City Council meetings, Bainbridge Island Television is on hand to record the action.

Cameras were rolling as usual Wednesday night, but the station, struggling to reach a funding agreement with the city, also was thrust into a starring role.

Meanwhile, councilors took on an equally unfamiliar role as deal brokers, voting unanimously to increase the station’s funding in hopes of ending the stalemate that has led to interruptions in programming.

“This is not a donation,” said Councilwoman Debbie Vancil. “It’s a contract for services. This is something that’s long overdue.”

Under the negotiating parameters set by the council, BITV would receive a total of $230,000 from the city – less than the $250,000 it was seeking, but more than the city’s initial offer of $135,000.

The station received $147,000 from the city in each of the past three years.

A list of deliverables from the station to the city – including continued coverage of council meetings – will be a part of the final contract, likely to be voted on by the council at the end of the month.

The new contract’s duration will be between three and five years, according to BITV Executive Director Scott Schmidt. The additional money to BITV would lead to cuts elsewhere, said City Finance Director Elray Konkel.

The city and BITV have been in contract negotiations since before their prior contract expired Jan. 31.

At issue is the amount of revenue being funneled to the station via the city.

The city this year will receive about $250,000 in television generated revenue.

About $195,000 of that comes from a franchise agreement with cable giant Comcast; another $55,000 comes from annual PEG fees, a fee of $1 per month charged to every cable subscriber on the island.

BITV had been seeking all of the money in both pots.

The latest offer from the city would give BITV all of the PEG money, and 90 percent of the franchise money.

In the interim, between now and the signing of a new agreement, the city is paying BITV the amount agreed to under the old contract.

Even so, with a budget of $323,000 for 2008, Schmidt said the station may have to make cuts, though specific cuts haven’t yet been determined.

BITV cut programming earlier this month due to its funding shortage. Some programming will be restored, Schmidt said, but there won’t be enough money to maintain what the station did last year.

“It’s not a lot of money to run a television station,” he told councilors. “It’s not an overstatement to say that (for the city) this is an incredible bargain.”

The station has expanded rapidly of late, adding a second channel; it offered 12,000 programs last year, compared to just 221 five years ago.

Because money is tight, BITV relies heavily on volunteers to help with all facets of production.

Plans are in the works to add programming, including a community newscast the station hopes to unveil soon.

But the changes are expensive, Schmidt said, citing as an example the $10,000 it costs for streaming content.

On Wednesday, most agreed about BITV’s importance to the community, though some councilors were worried about giving the station too much of a bump at a time when money is in short supply.

“As important as BITV is to the community, there are other organizations on the island that I also hold in high regard,” said Councilman Chris Snow. “All have had to deal with budget cuts.”

Councilman Barry Peters had similar concerns, and expressed some discomfort at the council’s direct involvement in brokering the deal.

“I’m struggling with the unusual challenge of embarking on negotiations with ourselves before we then publicly decide what the terms of the contract should be,” Peters said. “That’s not the way we usually do this.”

Council Chair Bill Knobloch said that the station deserves the money, since it’s coming directly from cable subscribers.

“Give ‘em the money,” he said. “It’s essential to our community structure.”

That structure turned out in force to support the station. Speakers during the public comment session spanned all demographics.

Eliz Johnson said she and other seniors – some of whom are unable to attend public meetings in person – watch council meetings on BITV to keep apprised of city business.

“Please don’t deprive us of that,” she said.

Teachers and students voiced their opinion as well, saying the station has provided many classes the opportunity to learn production and filmmaking skills; for some it even provided a springboard to a career into the industry, they said.

South end resident Curt Winston had yet another take.

“This is our version of NPR,” Winston said. “For the city administration to play games with this money is wrong.”

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