Evanston considers dropping cable's public access support
December 30, 2009 - Evanston Review
By Bob Seidenberg firstname.lastname@example.org
The Evanston Community Media Center -- the source for public access programming -- would be forced to close its doors if cuts in the city manager's proposed budgets are approved by the city council, the center's executive director said Wednesday.
"We don't get a single dollar of tax money, but we are still on the chopping block," said Steve Bartlebaugh, the media center's long-time executive director. "This is the closest we have ever come to closing the doors at ECMC, which many people consider to be a venerable Evanston institution."
City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz's proposed budget called for reducing a number of services and programs, as officials seek to close a $9.5 million deficit.
Council members will take up the discussion in workshops in January and February, approving a final budget before the start of the fiscal year, March 1. Council members are scheduled to hold their first workshop on the proposals at 9 a.m. Jan. 9 at the Lorraine H. Morton Civic Center 2100 Ridge.
The proposed cut of $200,000 for the cable center accounts for almost half of the non-profit's general fund budget (rent and utilities at the media center's offices at 1285 Hartrey total $150,000). The $200,00 comes from cable fees the city collects from Comcast.
The proposed cut, were it to go through, "would make it impossible to provide a third of the services we have now," said Bartlebaugh on Wednesday.
Further, "It's important to note that ECMC does not get one cent in tax dollar support," stressed Bartlebaugh. "All of our funding comes from the cable franchise fees and it was very clear that's how the Center would survive since its reorganization in 2001."
He said Evanston received $847,000 in cable franchise fees from Comcast this year, and the media center is asking for $348,000 back from the city to continue serving the community.
Past city administrations have used the excess funds generated through the cable fees as revenue for the general fund. The media center's cuts are included in reductions in programs that fall under the city manager's office. Neither Bobkiewicz -- who is not expected back in the office until next week -- or Assistant City Manager Marty Lyons could be reached for comment late Wednesday.
Overall, the city manager's proposed budget calls for reductions or elimination of programs which have strong constituencies, such as the branch library service, city dental clinic and reduced staffing in police summer deployment. Branch library supporters have already began speaking out in opposition to the proposed cuts.
The media center, unlike the branch libraries, though, did not surface as a suggested cut in the four citizen workshops in which participants were asked to list priorities on reductions (in lieu of increases in taxes or fees).
Media center staff provided more than 14 hours of programming for those workshops. The Center's full-time staff of four also handled programming for more than 18 hours of election coverage and the broadcasting of the annual Fourth of July Parade, said Bartlebaugh.
In addition, special capital project and district overview videos were produced for District 65 and regular live coverage of both school district board meetings and city meetings were provided by the center, he said.
Under Bobkiewicz, who started in August, the city has made a strong push in support of new media ventures, joining such social network sites as Twitter and FaceBook, and doing some less sophisticated video in-house. A few communities, including Highland Park and Glenview have cut back their cable programming services in the face of deficits, similar to Evanston.
At the media center, volunteers have produced more than 300 hours of programming in 2009, said Bartlebaugh. "Many people who started learning about making television here have gone on to have successful careers in broadcasting," he said.
The Center plays a key role in the move to new media, providing "the knowledge, the tools and the training so everyone can have their voice heard by as many people as possible," Bartlebaugh said.
If the center were to shut down, Evanston would take a big step back in its efforts to promote new media.
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