Mesa, Ariz., Residents Rally for Local Cable Ops

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Citizens in Mesa, Ariz., have become concerned about the level of "hidden taxes" generated by city hall. So when the demands the city made in its cable franchising talks hit the press — and the local operators there publicized the potential effects on consumers — some citizens got organized.

"We've decided this cable tax is the last straw," said Kirk Adams, chairman of the Citizens for Lower Taxes.

Adams and 75 other residents are petitioning in hopes of placing a ballot initiative that will change the city charter. The changes would protect Cox Communications Inc. and Cable America from some of the demands that have stalled refranchising talks.

Cox has also filed a federal lawsuit seeking clarification of the current contract.

"Of course, we support their efforts," said Ivan Johnson, Cox's vice president of community relations and televideo.

The most contentious issues are connections to municipal buildings and financial support for public, educational and government access channels. The city and Cox are battling over whether that operator should make changes to enable a city-specific Emergency Alert System.

The 15-year-old franchise demands the system, but Cox argues the language predates the current regional EAS set-up that provides the coverage intended by the officials who drafted the original franchise.

Both Cox and Cable America have told their customers the city's demands will result in higher cable rates, an argument that has galvanized Adams and others.

Why befriend cable? Adams said he believes the refranchising issues have triggered more calls to city hall than any of the council's past "tax-and-spend" practices.

The initiative, launched with a recent city hall rally, would roll back the current 5% franchise fee to 3%. It would also prevent any city attempts to impose fees and taxes on Internet service. It guarantees four free PEG channels and connections to elementary schools, but would prohibit the city from demanding free cable services and equipment for other uses.

Kirk said he has no political aspirations, nor personal ties to cable. The owner of a family-owned property and casualty insurance agency, he is merely tired of tax and fee increases.

Cox and Cable America are airing spots publicizing the initiative. The Arizona Cable Telecommunications Association is also backing the effort, but executive director Susan Bitter Smith said it is unlikely any other community will pick up on the idea.

"The current conditions are unique to Mesa," she said. "The city, in its renewal process, has gone far beyond the common franchise demands, hence the consumer involvement. They get it, that it will cost them more money."

Mesa's city licensing director did not return repeated calls.

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