Gazette: Amherst Media Board Plans For ‘What If’ Funding Options

On December 26, 2016, the Daily Hampshire Gazette published an article penned by staff writer Scott Merzbach regarding Amherst Media current status of providing services to the town of Amherst without a contract.

AMHERST — For 40 years, Amherst Media has provided community access services to the community, including its continuing contribution of broadcasting numerous public meetings.

When the last 10-year deal with Comcast was reached in October 2006, the town and the entity then known as Amherst Community Television signed a coinciding agreement, with Amherst Media getting 5 percent of gross annual revenues from the local system to support what’s known as the “PEG” channels – the public, educational and governmental channels people associate with traditional cable access.

While this had been expected to continue when the town reached a new deal with Comcast in the fall, which also included $1.125 million in capital funding for Amherst Media, this is by no means certain, as town officials, in consultation with auditing firm Melanson Heath of Greenfield, say a new approach may be required.

New guidelines from the state’s Department of Revenue’s Division of Local Services no longer allows pass through of the approximately $300,000 in revenues collected annually from Comcast. Instead, the town will have to either create an enterprise fund or a special revenue fund with which to pay Amherst Media, or another provider, said Town Manager Paul Bockelman

“Because we are handling money differently, we have to handle the procurement differently,” Bockelman said.

In a memo to the Select Board, Bockelman writes that “treating the funds different means we will need to follow procurement law and publicly bid for the service that Amherst Media has been providing for the town. This is a significant change in our past practice.”

An enterprise fund could be created at annual Town Meeting next spring, or a revolving fund could be established, but the town would need to put up the $300,000 before it is received from Comcast.

Amherst Media Executive Director Jim Lescault, who met with Bockelman Friday, said a lot of uncertainly is caused by this new arrangement. “We’re sitting here not knowing how this will impact us,” Lescault said.

Lescault said he understands any money brought in by PEG has to find an account, but it is not mandatory to handle money the way the town is planning to do so.

A request for proposal means the town will be advertising for the service.

Bockelman told the Select Board this could mean someone else, such as the University of Massachusetts, bidding for the contract.

“I’m not sure anybody other than Amherst Media could respond, maybe the university could pull together a proposal or something,” Bockelman said,

Lescault said the uncertainty is a concern. “We’re not close to know if and when they’ll put out an RFP,” Lescault said.

If this happens, though, Lescault said he is confident that Amherst Media’s four decades of experience will speak loudly.

Select Board member Connie Kruger said she thinks an RFP process is a better way to go, to formalize goal setting for what the town wants, and for the Select Board to be more actively involved in spending decisions.

“I think it adds some benefits to the process,” Kruger said.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.

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News

Mar 22, 2017

Amherst Media is elated to announce that Amherst’s Town Manager and Select Board have reversed their decision to post a Request for Proposal (RFP) and instead is heeding the recent findings from the MA Inspector General’s Office and Department of Revenue.

This excerpt from the Town Manger’s report to the Select Board on Monday, March 20, stated the following:

What does this mean? In short, we are moving back to the way we have accounted for funds and contracted for services as we have in the past.

Next Steps: 

Mar 16, 2017

At the Monday, March 13, 2017 Select Board meeting, Jim Lescault, Executive Director of Amherst Media, spoke during public comment, presenting to the Select Board a very real alternative to the path of Request for Proposal the Town was on.  The Office of Inspector General had written their opinion regarding PEG services and 30B procurement totally redefining how the Town of Amherst’s government had interpreted the regulations.

Mar 6, 2017

There unfortunately continues to be many unanswered questions circulating around the Amherst community regarding the recent decision by the Town Manager and Select Board regarding the proposed changes in how the Town contracts Amherst Media for the Cable Access Public, Education & Government (PEG) services.

While the Town will be providing an on-line opportunity for the community to give input to the RFP, we feel there exists a real need for a community dialogue on such a monumental change in policy.

Feb 24, 2017

In an age of mass media consolidation, access to public information to insure government transparency is more vital than ever. Amherst Media, one of the oldest community access centers in the country providing that kind of transparency to its community, is in a contract dispute with the Town of Amherst. And as with many other such centers across the country over the last ten years, its future is far from certain.

Feb 24, 2017

Dear Friends of Amherst Media,

Our contract saga continues, but now, with legal counsel, we are ready to mount an exertive effort to bring the Town and Amherst Media to the table for negotiations.

A letter was submitted to the Select Board requesting that Amherst Media be placed on the Feb. 27 evening’s agenda. The letter stated that Amherst Media had obtained legal counsel as of February 20 and that our counsel would like to discuss the Town Manager’s February 3 offer to extend Amherst Media’s expired contract through June 30, 2017.