Under pressure from the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, Cox Communications Inc. agreed yesterday to negotiate with Fairfax officials about giving the county's 244,000 cable customers lower rates, better equipment and more choice in programming.
Cox has proposed to buy the county's current cable provider, Media General Cable of Fairfax, for $1.4 billion. Supervisors yesterday delayed approval of that purchase for two weeks, saying they want to push Cox to find solutions to the longtime consumer complaints.
Federal law and a county ordinance give Fairfax the power to approve or deny the massive buyout, and several supervisors said they want to take advantage of the opportunity to improve service.
"Staff will meet with Cox to discuss and possibly address numerous issues brought up today," said Supervisor Gerald E. Connolly (D-Providence). Chief among those, Connolly said, is concern about high monthly rates and frustration with set-top converter boxes that do not allow viewers to watch one channel while they record another.
Supervisor T. Dana Kauffman (D-Lee) said he hoped the negotiations would persuade Cox to resolve some of the technical concerns that customers say Media General has been slow to address.
"I would love to give the company an opportunity to provide all of the things that customers of Fairfax want a lot sooner," he said.
Cox executives attending the meeting yesterday said they will take the negotiations seriously, but they declined to commit to any specific measures.
"You are talking about some complex technical issues," said Cox Vice President Claus F. Kroeger. "Where there is an opportunity to meet the customers' needs, we certainly want to do that."
The Board of Supervisors voted 9 to 1 in favor of the delay, but several members attacked their colleagues for needlessly reopening issues. A year ago, the county renewed Media General's 15-year franchise to provide cable in the county through 2013.
Supervisor Elaine N. McConnell (R-Springfield) said that "if Cox is financially and physically able to do what we want, that's what I care about."
The board is scheduled to take a final vote on the sale at its next meeting, July 26, at 3 p.m.
In other action, the supervisors voted to buy insurance policies for personal items in the county cars used by the county executive and the county attorney. Those cars are the only two provided to employees for both personal and public use.
The issue came up recently when County Executive Robert J. O'Neill Jr. asked the county, which is self-insured, for reimbursement for his stolen golf clubs and those of a friend. The clubs had been taken from his county car while both were at a local government conference.
O'Neill was initially given $2,000 but later returned the money after his homeowner's insurance company agreed to cover the loss. The county has paid O'Neill's friend for the loss of his clubs. In the future, any items stolen from O'Neill's car would be covered by an insurance company instead.
On another matter, supervisors approved a compromise worked out between O'Neill and employee groups to give the county executive power to amend the county's job classifications without board approval. O'Neill had sought the power as part of his efforts to streamline the county's bureaucracy.