A growing pot of money raised from fees paid by cable television companies has caught the eye of the county's top administrator, who suggested Tuesday that the nearly $1-million reserve be used for whatever the Board of Supervisors desires.
Chief Administrative Officer Clifford Graves just as quickly recommended that about a third of that reserve--now spent only for purposes related to cable television--be used to expand his staff.
But members of the county's Cable Television Review Commission, who stand to lose much of their current clout under Graves' proposal, opposed the move, and a top cable company executive said the franchise fee was looking more and more like a "hidden tax" on cable firms and their subscribers.
Supervisors discussed the issue for an hour Tuesday but are not scheduled to take any action on the matter until next week.
If approved by the board, Graves' proposal would funnel the money collected through franchise fees into the county's general fund, where it could be used to support any county service.
Graves recommended that $262,000 be spent to create an Office of Telecommunication and Information Technology to guide the county's future use of telephone, computer and video technology.
Graves also wants to spend $102,000 to expand the county's public affairs office in hopes of improving the image of county government.
The proposal also included $75,000 to expand employee training and $52,000 to provide cable service to county buildings.
Al Steinbeck, a member of the commission which now dictates the use of the franchise fees, said the county should continue to spend the money on purposes designed to benefit cable subscribers. He said Graves' desire to expand his staff should be reviewed separately from the decision on how to spend the cable fees.
"Merely to shift the fees to (Graves') office and then describe it as some noble needed cause is not the proper way to do it," Steinbeck said. "What we're talking about is adding a third of a million dollars to the CAO's special projects staff."
Robert McRann, vice president and general manager of Cox Cable, the county's largest cable television company, called the fee a "hidden tax." He suggested that the county return the unspent reserve to cable subscribers and reduce the franchise fee to no more than the level needed to regulate the industry.
But supervisors indicated that they would probably support Graves' proposal, which he introduced in part because supervisors have complained about their inability to direct spending of county funds.
"All over the state of California, user fees are being used for whatever is legally possible because all the other taps have dried up," Supervisor Brian Bilbray said.
Supervisor Susan Golding said she was frustrated by the high percentage of the county's budget that must be spent on services mandated by the state.
"The flexibility that is left to us we have got to be able to use," she said.