The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors this week decided to explore the possibility of county ownership of its own cable television system, a prospect that some supervisors see as a way to sweeten the county's coffers and defuse the simmering controversy over awarding the county's lucrative cable television franchise.
"With all our costs going up, we've got to look at other sources of revenue," said Supervisor Joseph Alexander (D-Lee), who pushed for the idea of a county-owned system. "Fuel is costing us a lot of money. Metro (transit) is competing with schools for funding . . . .
"Municipalities could bring in tons of revenue on a service like this."
The decision to consider county ownership of a cable system, which will be part of an ambitious 3-month study of cable issues by the county's Consumer Protection Commission, came as the supervisors attempted to build citizen involvement into the franchise selection process.
The county proposal is almost certain to be opposed by representatives of the cable television industry, who are known to be eager to begin competing for a cable television market that is considered to be one of the most economically alluring in the nation.
Among other issues to be examined by the Fairfax consumer group, in a study that is expected to cost a minimum of $35,000:
The potential for invasion of privacy posed by cable television.
The impact of cable television technology on the lives of citizens who may be encouraged, by cable systems offering more than 50 channels of programming, to spend more of their time in front of the television.
The role of the county and federal governments in regulating cable systems.
The possibility of cooperative ownership of cable television.
The supervisors' decision to map out the direction of further study on the complicated cable issue came after a turbulent two-hour session Monday, in which supervisors fenced with some of the difficult questions facing localities around the nation as they attempt to award cabel franchises. Federal moves toward deregulation of cable televsion over the past few years have left the resolution of such questions squarely in the lap of local authorities.
How can localities be sure that cable subscriber rates reflect the cost of the service and not an expanded profit margin caused by the presence of "rent-a-citizens" who get free cable company stock in return for their political influence, asked Supervisor Audrey Moore (D-Annandale).
"We're dealing with something different than we've ever gotten into before," said Moore. ""This is regulation at the local level. If Vepco were out hiring rent-a-citizens, you'd be hearing screams from one end of the county to the other."
Is there any way to predict how much a county cable system might be worth within the next 10 years, asked Supervisor Martha V. Pennino (D-Centreville).
"We really ought to figure out what kind of profit we're talking about before we give this thing away."
County cable administrator William Rossi pledged further study of these and other questions, amid objections from Board Chairman John F. Herrity, who maintained that county footdragging will eventually drive up cable rates in the county.
"Some people say we have to know everything about cable before we decide on it, and others say we have to be able to figure out exactly what it will do in the future," said Herrity. "But we're not preternatural beings and we're not supernatural beings. We can't become completely knowledgeable about the future. Meanwhile, the consumer pays the bill."
Herrity eventually agreed to support the study measure, which passed unanimously, on condition that the study be completed within three months.
"I don't see any problem with that," said Betsy Hinkle, chairman of the county Consumer Protection Commission. "I only wish the holidays didn't fall right in the middle of it."