City officials in Manassas and Manassas Park, responding to cable subscribers upset by an announced 21 percent rate increase, say they will take a look at whether there is a way to regulate the cable company.
Cablevision Inc., which provides cable television to 14,000 customers in Manassas, Manassas Park and western Prince William County, has announced it will raise the basic monthly rate from $13.95 to $16.90 beginning March 1, the second increase in less than a year. Rates went from $8.75 to $13.95 a month last June, an increase of 59 percent.
"And that's on top of cutting two quality channels," said Jerry W. Davis, city manager for Manassas Park, who along with the city attorney will review the city's franchise contract with the company. "The timing couldn't have been worse."
Manassas City Council members said they will try to meet with Cablevision officials and discuss what one member called a "deteriorating" relationship. "I'm very unhappy with the increase in rates without them discussing it with us," council member Maury Gerson said.
"I've just been telling people to cancel," Gerson said. "We can't do very much other than that because they have a franchise contract with the city for 10 years or so."
"We don't believe they are unreasonable rates compared to other cable services in the area," said Dennis Mackey, general manager for Cablevision Inc., who said the company lost about $900,000 because of rising labor and administrative and programming costs.
However, a spokesman from Columbia Cable of Virginia, which operates four cable services in Prince William and Fairfax counties, said it charges $10.65 to $15.95 a month. Fourteen hundred customers in the Fort Belvoir area are charged the least at $10.65. About 42,000 subscribers in eastern Prince William are charged the most at $15.95.
Charles Wilkinson, marketing director for Columbia Cable, said there are no plans to raise rates this year except in Lake Ridge, where the monthly rate will increase from $12.50 to $13.95 in March. "We're adding more channels -- probably three," he said, adding that the last rate increase there was more than a year and a half ago.
The rate increase comes several months after Cablevision canceled two channels offering various programs from independent stations WGN and WBBF.
According to the county's Office of Consumer Affairs, there was a "significant increase" in the number of telephone calls from residents complaining about Cablevision Inc. since the cancellation.
Of 43 calls received last month, 35 were directed at Cablevision Inc. Most were about the replacement of the two stations with channels devoted to travel and fashion. In November and December, combined, the office received 21 calls.
"We've received complaints strictly about the change in rates and services," Mackey said. "But we're not having any more complaints of the quality or the dependability of service."
In response to resident concerns, Davis said he and City Attorney Charles S. Perry have been reviewing the contract the city signed with the company in granting the franchise in 1983 and will look at Federal Communications Commission regulations. "There seems to be an attitude of 'take it or don't take it,' " Davis said.
Cable experts said, however, that cities are powerless to act because Congress approved a measure in 1984 that said jurisdictions could no longer regulate cable rates.
"In the regulatory sense, there's nothing we can do," said Douglas Bourne, cable coordinator for the county's Office on Consumer Affairs. "The cable companies are only required to give a 30-day notice of a rate increase."
"The marketplace will determine cable television rates," said Manassas City Manager John G. Cartwright. "If they get too far out of line, the customers will take some action."
Geoffrey E. Peterson, who has led a battle for better service since canceling his cable subscription two years ago, said a citizens action committee needs to be formed. "While a few voices can be ignored, the collective voice of the majority cannot," he said.