A year after Cheshire TV went dark, public programming in Keene could see a revival with some help from neighbors across the Connecticut River.

At Thursday’s meeting of the City Council’s Finance, Organization and Personnel Committee, members recommended the full council authorize City Manager Elizabeth Dragon to negotiate an agreement with Falls Area Community Television (FACT). The nonprofit community-access center is based in Bellows Falls.

Under the agreement, FACT would operate public-programming services on the local public community-access television channels provided by Spectrum. That could include training residents, coordinating volunteers and scheduling content, according to Thursday’s meeting agenda packet.

Last May, Keene withdrew its support from Cheshire TV due to concerns about the station’s leadership. In recent years, the city contributed roughly $180,000 annually to Cheshire TV. The station also served Swanzey, but the town pulled its financial support in January of last year.

Since the demise of Cheshire TV, the city has continued broadcasting government meetings on channel 1302, Dragon told The Sentinel. But there’s still a desire within the community for people to produce their own content, she said.

In an email Thursday morning, Swanzey Town Administrator Michael Branley said the town had expressed interest in working with Keene to re-establish public programming in the area, but said he was not familiar with the conversations with FACT. He said he anticipated the town would be brought into the discussion “at the appropriate time.”

If the agreement with Keene goes through, Dragon said Thursday evening that she expects FACT will invite Swanzey to participate as well. She said she spoke with Branley about it earlier in the day.

In February, city officials issued a request for qualifications (RFQ) to find an organization that would be in charge of the community-access station’s “coordination, operation and management.”

The deadline came and went, and the city did not receive any proposals, according to Dragon.

In late April, FACT learned Keene was looking to bring back public programming and decided to reach out, according to Alex Stradling, the organization’s executive director.

Under the agreement, FACT would work as an independent contractor under the City Council or whatever governing body the city designates to oversee the work, according to FACT’s proposal.

Content created in Keene would be broadcast and distributed across FACT’s Vermont service area, which includes Athens, Bellows Falls, Brookline, Rockingham, Grafton and Westminster. Similarly, Vermont content would be broadcast in Keene, thus increasing the reach of the programs, Stradling said Thursday afternoon.

The proposal calls for hiring a station manager in Keene with an annual salary of $40,000. Other expenditures include hiring a part-time outreach and production coordinator, hiring freelance production crews to cover community events, and covering administrative costs. The proposal’s total annual budget comes to $86,460, and calls for an initial three-year contract.

Funding for the partnership would come from cable franchise fees, Dragon told The Sentinel after Thursday’s FOP Committee meeting. If the full City Council approves, Dragon said she would then begin negotiating the contract’s terms, including its cost, with FACT.

Pending the council’s final decision, Stradling said FACT is looking forward to collaborating with Keene.

“We’re here to sort of expand the values of public access and to be able to help the city of Keene and residents of Keene ... to get their voices heard,” he said.

New firefighters

The city applied for a $458,000 Assistance to Firefighters Grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and is hoping to fund four new firefighters. The money would cover the recruits’ first year with the department and then a percentage of those costs. From the fourth year on, it would be the city’s responsibility to fund those positions, Dragon said.

The city should learn if it will receive the grant between now and September, she added.

Earlier this year, the city organized a fire staffing committee to look at staffing challenges within the department. The committee included members of the fire department, the firefighters’ union and city officials.

After months of looking at data about call trends, frequency and types, the committee issued a report, which Dragon shared Thursday.

While call volume increased from 3,638 in 2009 to 5,005 in 2021, the number of firefighters working for the department — about 40 — remained the same, Dragon said. Additionally, the number of on-call firefighters who are active with the department has decreased, Dragon said.

The budget

The FOP Committee is moving through its weeks-long process of reviewing parts of Keene’s proposed budget ahead of a full City Council vote in June.

For fiscal year 2023, the proposed total budget — not including added capital expenses — is $64,985,168, according to city officials. That’s up 2.5 percent over this year’s $63,394,696.

The impact on the city tax rate is expected to be 0.49 percent.

The proposed general fund, which is Keene’s primary account for most of the city’s functions and departments, is proposed at $45,574,760. That sum is about 4.8 percent less than this year’s $47,873,577.

The total amount to be raised by taxes is proposed at $26,757,681, down about 4 percent from $27,861,066 this year.

A public hearing for the budget is scheduled for June 2, at 7 p.m. at City Hall, and the City Council is expected to vote on the budget June 16.

Molly Bolan can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1436 or mbolan@keenesentinel.com. Follow her on Twitter @BolanMolly.

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