By Timothy Cox
ROCKFORD -- Negotiations on a new cable television franchise agreement with Time Warner have reached impasse, and at least one village official is ready to tell the cable company to get out of town.
Village officials have spent the past couple of months trying to negotiate the terms of a franchise agreement with Time Warner to replace the 20-year contract that expires in April 2005. Village officials, especially council member Keith Rutledge, have pushed the company to offer a shorter deal and make other contract concessions with some success. Time Warner officials have said the remaining terms are "non-negotiable," village Solicitor Judy Koesters said.
Time Warner originally sought a 15-year non-exclusive agreement that would allow any number of other cable operators to also go into business in Rockford. When village officials insisted on a shorter deal, the company countered with a 10-year contract with an automatic five-year renewal at the company's option.
The difference between the two contracts seems negligible, village officials said. Time Warner officials have said they need long-term agreements to give the company solid footing when borrowing money or providing new services to an area.
Rockford officials did succeed in getting language inserted into the contract that gives the town and local school system free cable and Internet access. They remain unhappy, though, with the company's unwillingness to bargain. Council members asked Koesters what would happen if the operating agreement lapses without a new deal in place. There is no threat of Time Warner pulling out of the Rockford market, Koesters said she was told by company officials.
"They've got too much invested," she said.
Koesters also questioned whether dragging out fruitless negotiations would provide any benefit. But Rutledge proposed using a lease contract with Time Warner for a plot of ground near Shane's Park as a bargaining chip to get the company to relent on the franchise agreement issues. The land lease also expires in April and village officials plan to seek an increase in rent.
Rutledge suggested the village exercise its option to exit the lease and give the company 120 days to remove its equipment from the site. The signal head location provides programming to the Rockford, Mendon and Willshire markets.
"I think that will get their attention," Rutledge said.
Koesters said village officials could legally do so, but no other council members agreed to the plan. Time Warner officials are willing to negotiate on the land issue and are expecting an increase in rent, she said.
Time Warner has about 330 customers in Rockford.