Gerhart adds cable overseers to budget

County Executive Craig S. Gerhart wants to create two new full-time positions strictly to handle Prince William’s new cable TV contract.

The positions, which are included in the county’s $538 million operating budget set to be passed Tuesdaywill cost the county $92,000, including benefits, for a half year in fiscal 2003. Base salaries are $38,517.

A cable TV coordinator will enforce performance standards and field customer complaints.

The second employee will produce and program the government access channel, including televising meetings of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors and the Planning Commission.

Comcast has been operating under numerous contract extensions since its original contract expired in July 2000.

Supervisors who have been critical of the amount of time it has taken to negotiate a new contract, however, say they favor the new positions.

County public information specialist Liz Bahrns is hopeful the new contract will be signed within in the next six months. It has taken so long she said because the 15-year agreement is complex, some of the players have changed at Comcast, and the company has been involved in a merger with AT&T.

The contract contains new provisions giving the county the right to establish performance standards and fine Comcast if it doesn’t comply.

“Right now if there is a problem we have little recourse,” Bahrns said. “The only thing we can do is revoke their contract.”

The cable franchise has been a money-making venture for the county. In fiscal 2002, the county made more than $3 million charging Comcast for underground rights of way for cable.

The new contract will give the county added teeth.

“There are some very specific standards that have to be monitored and there could be fines,” Gerhart said.

At recent budget hearings, Supervisor Ruth T. Griggs, R-Occoquan, was the most vocal opponent of the new positions. Griggs said Comcast should pay for someone to monitor the contract or the county should continue to do it.

“If I have a contract with you and I don’t like what you’re doing I don’t hire someone to yell at you, I hire someone to fix the problem,” she said.

Fairfax County employs 22 people to run their two stations and oversee their cable franchise.

Staff writer Diane Freda can be reached at (703) 878-4723.

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