Town asks Adelphia for cable credit

MERRIMACK – After a two-hour public hearing Thursday, during which town officials held several Adelphia cable company officials to the fire, selectmen asked the company for a simple show of good faith.

“I’m asking them to reach out to the people of Merrimack,” Selectman David McCray said.

McCray suggested the board formally ask Adelphia to give residents a one-month credit for the basic cable fee rate increase the company imposed this month.

His motion, which passed unanimously, capped an evening in which selectmen in particular grilled an Adelphia official who flew in for the meeting from the company’s corporate office in Denver.

At issue: The company failed to file a document justifying the increase in time for the town to review the information and hold a public hearing, as required by law, selectmen said.

Andy Elson, Adelphia vice president for regulatory accounting and compliance, did not comment on the motion.

The board is the franchising authority for Adelphia’s basic service monthly rate and for equipment – meaning the company must file several voluminous documents to the town justifying increases in the basic cable rate.

The basic fee is paid by all cable subscribers in town regardless of the level of service they receive.

The roughly 8,000 cable subscribers in town constitute about 80 percent of Merrimack’s households, said Heather Anderson, the town’s communications director.

Attorney Peter Epstein, representing the town in the matter, conceded selectmen could do little to contest the 22 percent increase from $10.95 to $13.40 a month.

But the board got an early start in seeking justification for the next time the cable company could impose a basic fee hike – January 2005. Selectmen also hammered Adelphia officials about why the company raised fees now, nearly two years after filing an FCC document that Adelphia contended justified the increase.

They also knocked the company for being inconsistent about when it raised other cable fees and for the floating deadlines it employed in filing crucial documents.

“Every time I look at my bill, I feel like I’m owing my soul to the company store,” Selectman Tony Pellegrino said.

He noted the increases have been particularly hard on senior citizens in town.

“There’s something to be said for going back to rabbit ears,” Selectmen Chairman Dick Hinch added.

“After all these years and what’s gone on here, the people of Merrimack deserve a good cable system,” Epstein said.

The town’s cable provider had changed hands only months before Adelphia bought out Harron Communications in May 1999.

Since then, the town has had a rocky relationship with Adelphia, with local customers complaining about poor service and the town threatening to take the utility to court over not responding to customer phone calls in a timeframe required by FCC regulations.

Compounding the issue is that the cable giant is now reorganizing after filing for bankruptcy. The change in management may have accounted for some of the inconsistencies and long delays in filing paperwork, an Adelphia official told selectmen.

“We don’t want to be in the media every month for rate increases,” said Elson, the Adelphia vice president. “It’s not good for business. It’s not good for us.”

Elson spent most of the two hours standing at the podium defending the company during an onslaught of questions, mainly from Anderson, the town communications director.

He was joined at the meeting by two other company officials – another vice president from Denver and the general manager at the company’s local office in Londonderry.

The board also voted to require the company to respond to other questions from the town within 14 days and to keep the public hearing open for 14 days. The board will then have 90 days to digest the volumes of information Adelphia is expected to submit.

Only three residents spoke during the hearing, including a current and a former member of the town’s cable TV advisory board.

Patrick Meighan can be reached at 594-6518 or