Chico City Council embraces new group to run Channel 11

City wants to expand local-government offerings on community-access TV

Chico will be getting a new community-access television station in the next month or two that will run on Channel 11 but may or may not be like the one Butte College has been operating there for many years.

Moving ahead despite the misgivings of two of its members, the Chico City Council authorized City Manager Dave Burkland to sign a contract with the group North Valley Community Access, a grassroots organization that has stepped forward and offered to organize and run the new station.

The change became necessary, Assistant City Manager John Rucker told the council, because in January Butte College notified the city that it intended to discontinue its public-access program. The college has gone to using Internet streaming exclusively, he explained.

By mid-year, NVCA had formed and told the city it was interested in taking over from Butte College. The city was eager to continue the televising of City Council meetings and even expand the city’s offerings, so it began working with NVCA, Rucker said.

He noted that by law Comcast is obligated to provide up to three channels for public use, though so far only Channel 11 has been used. Redding, he said, has a channel that operates 24/7 showing things to do in the region.

NVCA didn’t ask the city for funding, but it did request that the city use about $20,000 of its Public Access, Education and Government Channel (PEG) funds to purchase a used digital video server and install fiber-optic cable to connect the station—which will be located in the downtown offices of KZFR-FM, the community radio station—to the Comcast system. The city would retain ownership of the items.

City Clerk Debbie Presson told the council there was about $200,000 in the PEG fund. The money, which can be used only for capital costs of community-access-channel needs, is generated by a 1 percent assessment on Comcast’s annual gross revenues in Chico. It brings in about $100,000 annually, she said.

Butte College wants out of the television game as soon as possible, and in fact has continued Channel 11 mostly as a courtesy to the city until it has a replacement, Rucker said. That time crunch was part of the reason NVCA’s incorporation application had been sent back as incomplete and the organization’s business plan wasn’t quite finished, he said.

Mike Donnelly, one of NVCA’s organizers, said the group had moved fast because of the time crunch, but that he expected approval of the incorporation papers in a matter of days and did have a rough draft of the business plan he could show the council. The group had previously given the city a copy of its by-laws.

Councilman Bob Evans was concerned about content. “How will you decide which programs get on the channel, and which don’t?” he asked Donnelly.

“Our plan is to keep it the way it is” under the Butte College system, Donnelly replied.

Evans didn’t pursue the issue, but interviewed after the meeting he expressed concern that the station might end up with a left-wing bent similar to KZFR’s and not be entirely open to all viewpoints.

But his more immediate concern was whether NVCA had its act together well enough to warrant signing a contract.

“It’s a little weird to commit funds to an entity that isn’t an entity,” he said. “What’s the downside to tabling this [until NVCA has its paperwork cleaned up]?”

Councilman Mark Sorensen shared his worries. “This is one of those deals where we have to pass on something before we see it,” he stated.

Rucker noted, however, that authorizing the city to sign a contract was only a first step. No contract would be signed until NVCA’s preparatory work was finished, he said.

Councilman Andy Holcombe said that authorizing the contract put the city in “a position to act quickly” as soon as NVCA has its ducks lined up.

And Vice Mayor Jim Walker pointed out that the city wouldn’t be spending a dime on NVCA, but only on equipment the city will own.

The council voted to authorize the contract, 5-2, with Sorensen and Evans dissenting.

In other council news: Once again, the annual audit of the city’s finances has found nothing that needed adjustment and issued an “unqualified, or clean, audit opinion,” as Ingrid Sheipline, representing auditor Richardson & Co., told the council.

City finances are extremely complex, she said, and it’s “very rare for cities” to have such clean audits. She effusively praised Finance Director Jennifer Hennessey and her staff, as did Vice Mayor Jim Walker.

“This is another example of the outstanding work done by city staff that goes unrecognized by the general public,” he said. “I appreciate the hard work that goes into it.”

The council also got an annual update on implementation of its five-year housing element, which was approved in August 2009. Housing Manager James Coles pointed out all the ways the city is working to provide affordable housing by reviewing projects recently completed and those in the planning stages. But the need is far from met, he said.

Chico has a lot of “overburdened renters,” people paying more than 30 percent of their income for housing, Coles said. There are an estimated 5,663 households, for example, that are paying more than 50 percent of their income for housing, but only about 2,500 subsidized affordable units in Chico.

Councilman Andy Holcombe pointed out that these overburdened renters were “a huge economic drag on the community. They’re not shopping, they’re not going to the doctor….”

When people obtain housing they can afford, he continued, it frees up money for other things, which benefits the community at large as well as them.