Cloquet’s CAT-7 cable access channel has been thrown into the limelight following a series of budget cuts and several months off the air.
CAT-7 airs a variety of programming, including Cloquet City Council meetings, local church services, Minnesota Wilderness games and “Harry’s Gang,” a long-running political affairs show.
Since 1999, Cloquet has operated CAT-7 as a city department through a joint powers agreement (JPA) with Scanlon, Carlton and Thomson. The JPA set up a cable commission with three representatives from Cloquet and two each from the other entities to advise Cloquet on the channel’s operations and budget.
The channel is funded solely through franchise fees from Mediacom. The station receives a small portion of the money paid by local subscribers to Mediacom to fund the channel’s personnel, equipment and programming.
For the past several years, the channel received approximately $100,000 each year in franchise fees, but in the years 2015-18 the channel went over its revenue by $160,000 combined. In 2018 alone, the channel received $103,800 in franchise fees but expenses outpaced revenue by $62,032, and personnel expenses accounted for approximately $110,000.
In an attempt to bring CAT-7’s expenses more in line with revenue, the Cloquet City Council chose to reduce personnel costs in 2019. In 2018 and before, the channel had one full-time and three part-time employees.
Station coordinator Eric Lipponen — CAT-7’s lone full-time employee — was reduced to 20 hours per week, and one part-time position was eliminated. Lipponen’s salary and benefits package with the city amounted to $87,400 in 2018 — or more than 84 percent of the total revenue from last year — according to Cloquet City Administrator Aaron Reeves.
Reeves said if the budget cuts had not been made, CAT-7 would have depleted its reserve fund by the end of 2020. With the cuts, the station’s 2019 budget was reduced to $100,350, putting it on a path to remain sustainable using only franchise fees.
New JPA revealed
During the Aug. 7 City Council Meeting, Thomson resident Patty Murto — a co-host of "Harry’s Gang" — provided an amended JPA approved by the Cloquet City Council as well as Carlton, Scanlon and Thomson in May 2016 that dramatically changed the oversight of CAT- 7.
The amended JPA — drafted by Cloquet City Attorney Frank Yetka — was presented by then-City Administrator Brian Fritsinger as having no substantive changes in the council’s packet. In reality, however, the new JPA gave budgetary and personnel authority to the Cable Commission. Reeves compared the new entity created to the Cloquet Area Fire District, but without any authority to levy for funds.
Reeves said he was never made aware of the amended JPA, and none of the members on the council at the time — Ward 4 Councilor Kerry Kolodge, Ward 5 Councilor Steve Langley, At-Large Councilor Lara Wilkinson and Mayor Roger Maki — remembered the vote. The minutes show that Maki, however, was absent from the meeting.
However, the minutes on the city’s website show the amended JPA was unanimously approved by the council May 3, 2016.
The amended JPA was never implemented, and the Cable Commission stopped meeting in January 2017. In fact, the Cable Commission has only two current members — Nathaniel Wilkinson and Peter Radosevich, both with terms that expire Dec. 31. Radosevich is Murto’s co-host on "Harry’s Gang."
Fritsinger — who left his position in March 2017 — said in an email that the other communities in the JPA rarely participated, and it was difficult getting applications to be members.
“The challenge with the Commission during my tenure was participation from other communities,” Fritsinger wrote. “Each year letters or emails were sent to those communities asking for representation on the Commission. Unfortunately there was often no suggestions provided in regards to community representatives from those communities.”
During the council’s meeting Tuesday, Aug. 20, they discussed their options for CAT-7 with Bill Helwig, a partner at Yetka’s Rudy Law Firm in Cloquet.
Cloquet can work with its attorneys to withdraw from the JPA or dissolve it altogether. Alternatively, the city can continue with the agreement as approved in 2016.
However, if the 2016 JPA is to be used the Cable Commission needs to:
appoint members appointed from each entity in the JPA;
appoint officers, set a monthly meeting time and have a quorum each month to approve bills and conduct business;
acquire liability and worker’s compensation insurance from the League of Minnesota Cities Insurance Trust;
set up an annual audit with an accounting firm;
adopt a set of policies and procedures to govern the operation of CAT-7 and its employees;
and contract or hire its own employees or establish an agreement with Cloquet to provide employees to CAT-7.
In the meantime, several council members said the priority should be getting CAT-7 back on the air because they have been contacted by residents about the channel.
“I think this is going to take a long time for us to sort out what is logistically most advantageous for the community and for the station,” Councilor Wilkinson said. “I would like to see it back up and running and for them to have the resources that are needed to facilitate that until the commission can sort things out. If that means putting Mr. Lipponen back in place full time, then that’s what we need to do in the interim until we can come up with a long term plan of how we are going to manage this station and the content and how we are providing this service to the community.”