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Oldsmar seeking cable TV changes

Efforts by TCI Cablevision to expand its system in Oldsmar are getting a bad reception at City Hall, and some council members want to pull the plug on the company's franchise. Meanwhile, the council might cut a new deal with Vision Cable, giving it access to the newer parts of the city, over TCI's objections.

The situation has at least one council member, Loretta Wyandt, worried that Oldsmar is a David tackling two Goliaths at once.

"I don't want to get into a position where we're caught between TCI and Vision and we're caught in a trap," she said.

TCI, the largest cable company in the country, provides up to 36 television channels to about 2,300 customers in Oldsmar, TCI general manager Terry Burkhardt said.

It started serving Oldsmar in 1987, when TCI took over Gulfstream Cable, which since 1980 had held the franchise for providing cable service throughout the city. The franchise gives TCI the exclusive rights to Oldsmar customers but requires the company to provide service to all areas of the city.

Recently, TCI work crews have been laying new lines to allow Oldsmar subscribers access to up to 54 channels, Burkhardt said.

That is not what has city officials upset. What has them upset is that a number of Oldsmar residents are complaining that the work crews are knocking out their cable, their power and their telephone service.

"They cut everything," said Donald Shoemaker, president of the Harbor Palms Homeowners Association. "My phone was out a day and a half."

Mayor Tom Pinta and council member Earl Halle said they have received a number of complaints from residents about the outages. This week, Halle decided enough was enough.

At Tuesday's council meeting, Halle called for canceling TCI's franchise - but not for poor service. That is not possible under the franchise agreement.

Instead, Halle suggested canceling the franchise because TCI hasn't provided the city with all the reports the contract calls for.

Halle said that in his search of the city's files from 1980 to 1989 he had found full reports from the cable company for only one year, 1984.

But Burkhardt pointed out to the council that TCI didn't take over serving Oldsmar until 1987. Since then TCI always has provided the city with the required reports, regardless of what is in the files, he said.

But Vice Mayor Richard Massman made a motion to have City Attorney Bryan Kutchens "investigate to see if there's a way to either kill the franchise or reduce it to a non-exclusive status."

Council member Jerry Provenzano objected to that motion as too strong. "I would rather see us have the attorney investigate and see if we have any legal grounds" to break the franchise, he said.

That was fine with Massman. "We'll hang them after we find them guilty," he said, laughing. The motion passed unanimously.

At the same council meeting, three of the five members voted to give tentative approval to a contract with Vision Cable that would let it provide service to the areas of Oldsmar annexed into the city after Aug. 27, 1982.

The biggest area annexed since that date is Cypress Lakes, a 1,812-acre wilderness that developers hope someday to turn into enough homes, apartments and condominiums to more than double Oldsmar's population.

Vision proposed that the city give it a non-exclusive franchise, which would allow other companies to compete with it. But Vision would not be required to serve any particular area. The company could pick and choose.

That prompted Burkhardt's objection. State law says the city cannot grant one company a more favorable franchise than it gives another, he said. Because TCI doesn't have a choice about which areas it serves, Vision would have an unfair advantage, he said.

Burkhardt garnered no sympathy among the council members. Massman urged passage of the Vision franchise, saying, "I think we're sending a message to TCI that we're not happy with their operations in the city of Oldsmar."

Pinta and Wyandt voted against an agreement with Vision.

The Vision franchise will come up again at the council's meeting Tuesday.