Cablevision contract rejected by council

BY CHRIS GAETANO Staff Writer

EDISON — An ordinance granting franchise rights to cable firm Cablevision died before it could even come to a vote during the Township Council’s Sept. 24 meeting, because no one on the council would formally make a motion for its adoption.

With the township’s rejection of the ordinance, which would have given Cablevision the right to operate in Edison for another 15 years, the matter will now go before the state’s Board of Public Utilities.

The deal’s rejection by the council, made amid vigorous protest by residents attending the meeting, also cancels out several terms negotiated between the firm and the administration, such as $40,000 up front and $10,000 per year for the next 15 years in addition to the $250,000 per-year franchise fee. Another part of the negotiated deal was one free digital cable box, which some customers need in order to continue to receive the local public access channels, which went digital earlier this month. A third part was a small discount for seniors.

These boxes, though, became the focus of a great deal of protest during the council’s discussion on the matter. Many residents were upset that they would only get one for free, saying that they might want to watch Township Council meetings in more than one room.

Councilwoman Antonia Ricigliano, meanwhile, questioned just how free the digital boxes were, saying that if people’s service is terminated and then restarted, then there’s a fee of about $7 a month to use it. Edison resident Jane Tousman said that making it harder to watch the public access channels would restrict the people’s right to know what’s going on with their local government.

“This is horrible. It takes the right to know from all the citizens who can’t drive because they’re too old to drive … and deprives them,” said Tousman.

Other people balked at the length of the contract, saying that 15 years was much too long. Some people noted that it’s longer than certain jail sentences.

Bill Stephens, an Edison resident, said that the previous contract with Cablevision was only 10 years.

“I don’t understand the benefit of a 15- year contract … . That’s just blatant irresponsibility,” said Stephens.

Still others objected to the contract due to numerous complaints about the company’s service itself. Many felt the rates were too high said that they tend to get higher. Others felt angry that Asian-language channels weren’t included in the basic package.

Before the motion for a vote was made, Adam Falk, vice president for government affairs for Cablevision, approached the dais and spoke to the council. He said that the contract, while lasting for 15 years, it non-exclusive, meaning that people are free to go to any other cable company or even to a dish, but touted Cablevision’s service as superior.

Addressing the complaints about the cable boxes, he stated that about 90 percent of Cablevision’s customers already have digital cable and won’t actually need a new box anyway. When council President Robert Diehl asked why if it’s such a small number, they can’t simply offer two, Falk reminded everyone that Cablevision is offering the one box of its own volition.

Diehl expressed his frustration at the deal, especially with regard to rates.

“The problem I have is it’s a 15-year contract and our people are paying more money. … What’s going to happen if this is approved? Your subscribers are going to be charged more. What kind of deal is that?” said Diehl.

Falk, however, noted that neither the township nor the state Board of Public Utilities has any control over rates. If the ordinance were to fail, the rates wouldn’t be affected one way or another.

“I hate that answer,” said Diehl. “I’m not feeling good about anything you’re saying.”

While some council members suggested tabling the ordinance and renegotiating, business administrator Anthony Cancro said that the township had been engaged in intense negotiations for years and said that going back to negotiations would only waste time and money, saying that they’re not going to be able to get anything more from Cablevision than what they already have.

Falk pointed out that should the measure fail, the township loses the money, the boxes and the senior discount. Many residents said they had no problem with this prospect.

“With a $118 million budget, if $40,000 is so darn important, we should look for it in the budget,” said resident Lois Wolke. Others suggested getting rid of one of the newly purchased hybrid cars in the township fleet as a way to make up the shortfall.

In the end, when the time came to make a motion for adoption, the dais was silent as not a single council member spoke up to call a vote.

Patrick MacElroy, a spokesperson with Cablevision, said in a written statement that the company looks forward to providing service to Edison residents for years to come.

“Cablevision is proud of our long history of service in Edison, and we are focused on continuing to deliver real value to our customers by providing the fastest Internet, best television and superior voice services over the nation’s most advanced fiber network,” said MacElroy.

Contact Chris Gaetano at sentnorth@gmnews.com.