The cable buy 

Cable Montana’s contract to provide cable services in Missoula’s Rattlesnake Valley expired at the end of March 2004. While subscribers aren’t in danger of losing services, the absence of an active contract may cost the city a bit of money, and recent negotiations have rattled at least the owner of Cable Montana. The new contract, which is under negotiation and modeled after the city’s cable contract with Bresnan Communications, will likely require that Cable Montana pay the city 25 cents per account per month, in addition to a standard franchise fee. “It’s not large,” says City Finance Director Brentt Ramharter, of the monthly quarter-per-account addition. The fee would amount to roughly $2,700 annually, he says, a portion of which will fund the purchase of equipment for a new public access government channel, which will be operated by MCAT (Missoula Community Access Television). The fee may or may not be retroactive to the contract expiration date.

It isn’t the dollar figure but the nature of the negotiations that troubles Cable Montana owner Chris Hilliard. Hilliard says his company serves just a fraction of the market served by competitor Bresnan Communications, and it shouldn’t be forced to agree to the same terms. (Bresnan is the only other company with a contract to provide cable services in the city.) Hilliard says Cable Montana is “the little guy getting smashed by the big-city law firm.”

“[Attorney for the city Brian Grogan] antagonizes…and gets everybody irritated,” says Hilliard of recent correspondence from Grogan. An Oct. 20 letter from Grogan to Hilliard’s attorney notes that negotiations began on Jan. 5 and that “…the City can no longer tolerate delays…” Hilliard says he’s happy to talk about a renewed contract. He wonders whether he should call the mayor or the finance director or a city manager.

Cable Montana attorney James Murphy believes that a contract, or franchise, will be in place by mid-December. He says franchise negotiations can take years: “There’s nothing unusual that’s going on here.”

Grogan, a Minneapolis-based attorney who represents Missoula and other cities and states on cable TV franchising, says city staff are anxious to conclude negotiations: “They believe that it’s time to get it done, one way or the other.”

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