By Abigail W. Adams
Mary Ellen Crowley, LCTV’s station manager, at the organization’s headquarters in Newcastle Friday, May 8. LCTV is moving towards a fee-for-service funding model for non-supporting municipalities following their removal from Wiscasset’s warrant. (Abigail Adams photo)
Wiscasset Board of Selectmen meetings will no longer be broadcast by LCTV, the community media organization supported by Wiscasset for over 24 years. Following the Wiscasset selectmen’s April 21 decision to remove LCTV funding from the annual town meeting warrant, the station adopted a new fee-for-service funding model for municipalities that do not provide financial support to the organization.
Starting July 1, the beginning of the 2015-2016 fiscal year, Wiscasset residents interested in video production training, using the station’s equipment, or creating a public access TV program must pay independently for the service, Mary Ellen Crowley, LCTV station manager, said.
“We hate to do this,” Crowley said, “but it’s the only fair thing to do.”
LCTV, channel 7, is the public access television station for most of Lincoln County. Its formation dates back to the early 1980s when cables were first laid in the Midcoast. Cable companies’ franchise agreements with Lincoln County municipalities included a provision for a public access TV station.
LCTV officially formed in 1990 and broadcast its first show in 1991. Since then, the station has broadcast government meetings, locally produced cultural programming, and alternative media produced by sister public access stations across the country. LCTV broadcasts 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to approximately 5,000 households in 10 Lincoln County municipalities, according to its website.
LCTV survives through the support of the municipalities it serves, Crowley said. The station’s broadcasts can be viewed in Dresden, Alna, Bristol, Damariscotta, Edgecomb, Newcastle, Nobleboro, Waldoboro, Westport Island, and Wiscasset.
The station developed a funding formula to determine how much to request from municipalities based on their population and number of cable subscribers. The station receives full support from six municipalities, Crowley said.
Westport Island has never supported LCTV and Edgecomb and Dresden have provided off-and-on support, Crowley said. Wiscasset has never provided LCTV with the full amount requested – now $10,255, according to the funding formula – but has supported the organization for practically its entire lifespan, Crowley said.
Approximately 10 years ago, Wiscasset received a capital grant from Adelphia Communications Corp., the now-defunct cable company bought out by Time Warner, to install recording equipment and broadcast government meetings. LCTV has supported Wiscasset since the initial purchase by troubleshooting equipment and recording problems, and contributing additional equipment.
According to Crowley, Wiscasset continues to receive approximately $40,000 a year in revenue from its cable contract with Time Warner.
Wiscasset provided LCTV with $6,000 for the 2014-2015 fiscal year. That number was reduced to $0 at the Wiscasset selectmen’s meeting April 21. Selectman Bill Barnes questioned the $6,000 for LCTV on the warrant and initially made a motion to reduce the appropriation to $4,000.
In a joint budget committee and board of selectmen workshop April 16, the amount recommended for LCTV was $0. According to budget committee Chair Cliff Hendricks, the discussion at the Thursday meeting focused on a new system suggested by Town Manager Marian Anderson to switch to a closed-circuit television model and stream selectmen’s meetings on Wiscasset’s website.
Selectmen decided to uphold the decision reached at the Thursday meeting and voted 4-0 to remove LCTV from the warrant. According to Chair Pam Dunning, video footage from meetings will be made available on the town’s website. The initiative is part of Anderson’s role in finding efficiencies in town government and increasing the town’s accessibility, Dunning said.
“It makes sense,” Dunning said. “If you want to learn about Wiscasset you can go to the town website and everything will be available from there.”
According to Crowley, the move will reduce public access to and the transparency of town government. Crowley noted many elderly residents, the largest demographic in Lincoln County, do not watch video footage online and will no longer be able to view Wiscasset selectmen’s meetings on TV.
Given the referendum annual town meeting model Wiscasset adopted, Crowley raised concern that a large portion of the population will lose the ability to understand and weigh in on the discussions behind selectmen’s decisions.
According to Crowley, there was no indication from a budget workshop April 4, when LCTV presented its budget request, that the organization was in danger of being removed from the warrant.
LCTV set up equipment to record the marathon budget workshop, but no recording of the meeting was made. The town does not record workshops, such as the April 4 and April 16 meetings, where a number of controversial decisions made by selectmen were discussed, Crowley said.
“This should be a concern to the people of Wiscasset,” Crowley said. “The townspeople are the legislatures and they’re losing their ability to understand and discuss the town’s budget.”
Currently, the Wiscasset Public Library is the only independent nonprofit organization on the town’s warrant. According to Dunning, the library is a quasi-municipal organization due to the services it provides, and municipal support allows residents to access the library without paying for membership.
Article 44 will ask voters whether $68,950 should be raised and appropriated for the library. Selectmen voted 3-1 to support the appropriation. Dunning abstained from the vote due to her position as the library’s director. The budget committee voted unanimously to oppose the warrant article. According to Hendricks, the budget committee felt all municipal services were being asked to lower their budgets, so the library should be asked to lower its budget as well.
LCTV’s board of directors held an emergency meeting April 27 to grapple with the loss of support in Wiscasset. The board of directors decided to adopt a fee-for-service funding model for the municipalities that have held back support for the organization.
The new funding model would require residents from non-supporting municipalities to pay for training, equipment rentals, and airtime, Crowley said. It was a decision the board of directors did not want to make, Crowley said, but the loss of support in Wiscasset “forced their hand.”