We need to clarify several points in response to Mayor Liz Lempert’s recent comments regarding Princeton Community Television (PCTV) [An open letter to Princeton Community Television Supporters, paid advertisement, The Princeton Packet, Feb. 7].
It is worth reminding the mayor that PCTV has provided a valuable service to residents and local community groups for more than three decades – one that is all the more worthwhile in this era of cable-dominated and social media news in which the public’s voice has faded and local community news coverage has been disappearing at an alarming rate.
As numerous members and community groups have attested in letters to the editor, in statements before Princeton Council and in emails to the mayor and Council President David Cohen, PCTV is a tremendous asset to our community. PCTV brings the community together, provides opportunities for non-profits to create videos to promote their organizations, extends internships to high school and college students to learn about the media arts field and offers valuable opportunities to highlight important community issues from a variety of voices, both inside and outside the community. To suggest that PCTV can easily be replaced by individuals producing their own products on cellphones is like suggesting that the services the Arts Council provides could easily be replaced by providing individuals with paint and canvas. To do so is to take away all the community and educational aspects of the station that make it so special.
First, to be clear, PCTV has never relied on taxpayer dollars and has never even been part of the town’s operating budget. The station has always received significant cable franchise fees to supplement its yearly fund-raising efforts. The station has not and does not cost the taxpayer a single penny. The Comcast and Verizon franchise fees are a pass through to the station from monies sent to the township by the State Board of Public Utilities.
PCTV understands the future and is moving to more self-reliance. However, with just $56,962 in franchise fee funding from the town for the first quarter of 2019, PCTV had to lay off two employees. Does the mayor truly believe that the loss of two jobs at PCTV in 2019 and potentially two more by the end of this year for the tiny gain of 75 cents per month per resident in so-called “tax-saved” is what this community wants and values? Has political expediency in Princeton now taken the place of serving as a lighthouse for the rest of the State?
Second, we are surprised at the mayor’s assertion that “many of those who use PCTV’s facilities reside in municipalities that no longer fund their own stations.” Princeton has always provided community and arts programs not just for Princeton but also for surrounding residents and communities. We are shocked to see the mayor suggest that funds should not go to organizations that serve both Princeton and non-Princeton residents, especially when so many non-residents work in Princeton and spend their money at local businesses. This is contrary to Princeton’s community values.
We are especially stunned by these statements given PCTV’s history as a community organization, which Princeton Council members helped build. Until 2015, municipal officials were members of our board. The original and existing PCTV bylaws, written by municipal officials, with input from past mayors and residents, specifically encouraged bringing the world to Princeton and calls for inclusion, not exclusion, of all voices. The bylaws state, in pertinent part: “PCTV will encourage coordination with other community access centers and organizations; facilitate the use of access channels as a public forum that promotes the free exchange of ideas and information; and, serve access viewers with programming and information reflecting the activities, concerns, and interests of the residents of the Princeton community.”
Third, the mayor thinks we have a reserve of $481,000 using this figure from our 2016 federal filing form when she states “this sizable reserve should no-doubt help fund its transition toward self-reliance.” The 2016 number is accurate. However, it takes into account not just our bank balance but also assets which we have purchased (such as cameras, media arts equipment, furniture, special lighting and other items of value). The Jan. 31 number is just a little over $120,000.
The mayor has publicly praised PCTV for being excellent financial stewards of its funds. Yet, she knows PCTV has had to rely on its reserves to keep the station open after the town ended, without advanced notification, all funding from cable franchise fees on April 1, 2019. Franchise fees make up 84% of the PCTV budget; private fund raising accounts for the other 16%.
However, the mayor leaves out important information related to this spike in income going back to 2015. From 2006-14, all cable franchise fees received by the town were passed on directly to PCTV under the signed and approved 2006 agreement between the town and PCTV. Of the $362,297 contractually owed to PCTV for the years 2012, 2013, and 2014, only $207,151 was paid by the town in 2015. The $155,146 difference was withheld by the town, in violation of the existing 2006 agreement, and has not been remitted to PCTV to this day. Additionally, PCTV received only $51,978 in franchise fees for the year 2015 out of the $364,442 received by the town. PCTV should have received approximately $262,000 for 2015; a deficit of $210,022. If appropriate payments were made to PCTV during this time, then yes we would now have a reserve of just under $500,000.
We understand the financial challenges facing the town. That is why we have been and remain open to returning to a constructive dialogue to resolve this funding matter and to find common ground that would give PCTV a reasonable amount of transition funding over time as we move toward self-reliance. We hope the mayor and also the council members are open to discussing a continued partnership with us.
No one could have imagined years ago that grassroots community empowerment would be needed now more than ever for democracy to thrive. Ending funding for PCTV and essentially putting it out of business for a minute amount of tax relief per resident seems contrary to what we value as a community. It ends a community institution and decreases communication, inclusivity, collaboration, transparency and the benefits of a free press to all citizens regardless of socioeconomic status.
PCTV Board of Trustees
1 Monument Drive