When the Community Media Access Center opened its doors in 1997, the dream was to have a place where Santa Rosa residents could learn about video editing and produce homespun documentaries, news programs and other shows to be aired on public access TV along with broadcasts of government meetings and local events.
That dream has faded, in part because of changes in technology — residents can take video on their phones and edit on home computers now — and through a deterioration in funding. Last year, the city cut funding for the Community Media Center of the North Bay from $660,000 a year to $300,000.
Today, the City Council will discuss a proposal to take a dramatic new step and cut off financial support altogether, forcing the center to close on March 31.
We understand the city's tight budget, a situation made worse by the recent news that it needs to contribute another $1 million a year to the California Public Employees Retirement System for pensions. But the city hasn't made its case for shutting down the center.
First, the $300,000 the city provides amounts to just 17 percent of what it receives in cable franchise fees, a fee created, in part, to help ensure the community has local programming.
Our main concern, however, has to do with the proposed solution — making most of the operations of the community media center a city function. Rarely do we see this as the best long-term solution, particularly during a time of tight budgets.
City staff is recommending that the council approve the hiring of a media services coordinator with a salary of up to $80,000 a year (not including benefits). In addition, the city seeks an allocation of $82,500 to cover the initial costs of broadcasting government meetings and other operational needs.
What's particularly concerning about the proposal is the uncertainty about what would happen to the public education and public access portions of the media center's role. City staff say they will need a year to look into ideas — including possibly offering fee-based classes — and develop a proposal.
But the community should be wary about having the city assume responsibility of managing community programming. Would Santa Rosa be willing to produce and air a program that offers a critical look at a City Council decision or a city function? Who would have oversight of such programs?
Just a few months ago, the city revoked funding for a neighborhood newsletter because it included the results of a council vote on an asphalt plant in the neighborhood. We can't imagine that overseeing TV programming would create any fewer problems.
Although city officials were dissatisfied with the quality of the proposals received when they sought bids for government and education services last fall, we don't see that as reason to give up on having community groups, possibly even the Community Media Center, continue to provide these services. What this suggests is the need to have more conversations, one that includes the general public, about innovation and the community's long-term programming needs.
Our hope is that conversation will begin tonight when supporters of the Community Access Center show up to voice their opposition to this plan.