The new year looks brighter for the Lake Minnetonka Communications Commission than it did two months ago, when half of its 17 city members had passed tentative resolutions to drop out. The 30-year-old nonprofit membership group was nearly on life support at the time, and one more withdrawal would have forced the commission to dissolve.
But four cities changed their minds about withdrawing during the past few weeks before a Dec. 31 deadline, and the commission will begin the year with 12 members.
“We feel pretty good about where we’re at,” said Commission Executive Director Sally Koenecke.
The commission produced more than 800 community programs last year for its member cities, ranging from city council meetings and candidate debates to high school sports, graduations and community events. It records the programs and televises them on four community access channels and online.
The commission works on behalf of subscribers in its member cities with cable provider Mediacom. The alternative, chosen by cities that left the commission, was to negotiate their own separate deals for cable service with the company.
What caused some cities to drop out varies from community to community. Some said that the commission was not aggressive enough in pushing Mediacom to build its cable system out to less densely populated areas. Others are interested in controlling monthly franchise fees paid by all subscribers on their bills instead of having Mediacom turn them over to the commission. The amounts range from less than $10,000 to more than $80,000 per year, depending on the city.
St. Bonifacius Mayor Rick Weible said his city likes the services provided by the commission, but didn’t want to get locked into a lengthy new contract, likely to be for 10 years. Technology is changing, he said, and people are gradually getting more information online for free than by cable through subscriptions. It’s difficult to say where cable companies will be in a decade, he said, and how they will be regulated.
Weible said St. Bonifacius and other member cities passed a couple of key amendments to the bylaws that made it worthwhile to remain in the group. One allows members to drop out in the future if they provide at least 15 months’ warning. That was also a factor for three other cities that changed their minds and decided to stay with the group: Maple Plain, Greenwood and Loretto.
The commission has also developed a tiered pricing structure in recent months that will allow former members and nonmember communities to become affiliates and pay for certain bundles of programs and services.
“Over time it’ll actually strengthen the organization,” Weible said, referring to the new pricing model.
Slimmer staff and hours
To be sure, the withdrawal of five communities will mean changes for the commission. Anticipating the changes, members slashed the commission’s 2013 annual operating budget of nearly $700,000 to $400,000 in 2014.
Koenecke said three of four full-time employees at the Spring Park studios will keep working, and the fourth — Koenecke herself — will switch to part-time. Positions of three part-time workers have been eliminated, however, and a couple other part-timers will have their hours cut. The studio will also trim some of its hours, she said, and will not be open on Saturdays, but will still offer production and other workshops to individuals from member communities.
The communities that dropped out are Minnetrista, Victoria, Orono, Tonka Bay and Medina.
Those remaining in the commission are Independence, Maple Plain, Long Lake, St. Bonifacius, Shorewood, Spring Park, Minnetonka Beach, Excelsior, Greenwood, Deephaven and Woodland. Mound is not a member but has been paying for services through a usage agreement since 1990.
Koenecke said the cities that dropped out will be able to receive the four commission channels until Feb. 28. However, the commission will not be producing or airing any programming for those cities, including their city council meetings.
Once-archived city council meetings from those cities that dropped out are no longer available at the commission’s website as of Jan. 2, she said.
Koenecke said the 12 member cities will move forward into the new year, and hope to have a new franchise agreement signed by the end of February.