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GTE, city cross wires on debate

GTE Florida has balked at the city's contention that the communications company promised to be a major sponsor of this fall's presidential debate.

The snag has left at least one city official fuming.

Instead of wiring the Bayfront Center with phone capacity for an expected 2,000 journalists, GTE is promising only to pay the cost of bringing wires to the facility. The estimated $75,000 to temporarily wire Bayfront would have to be guaranteed by the city.

Both sides have been talking about the arrangement for months, but city debate coordinator Anita Treiser said she learned just a few weeks ago that GTE considered itself a vendor, rather than an in-kind sponsor. She called it a "major miscommunication."

Both sides expect to resolve the differences.

"GTE Florida is a very upstanding corporate citizen, and we have been here a long time. We would like to come forward and sit down with the right people to get to the bottom of this," GTE government liaison Ken Waters told City Council members Thursday.

As it is, the change is unlikely to affect how well-prepared Bayfront will be for the Oct. 9 event, city officials said. Nor would an extra $80,000 or so bust the city's debate budget.

But it has meant several weeks' delay in getting phone system information to the Commission on Presidential Debates, and it dramatically alters the preliminary budget council members approved a month ago.

The city was hoping sponsorships would cover all but $275,000 of the estimated price tag. Now, the overall cost has shrunk to slightly less than $1-million, but the city's potential cost is $360,000.

One city official angrily suggested GTE reneged on a verbal deal.

"At a given point, somewhere in their corporate structure, they backed out," said Gene Webb, communications services administrator. "The decision on General Telephone's part on whether or not they wanted to take the responsibility to be a good corporate citizen here and bring an event that has nationwide impact and be a part of that, versus they just want to be someone that sells us a service, is an issue I think they're going to deal with down the road. But it's put us in an unfortunate situation."

Where the city had expected GTE to install a $590,000 communication system as an in-kind sponsorship, GTE now puts the price tag of hooking up 1,500 phone lines at roughly $373,000 and treats the arrangement as a straight business deal for which it wants no losses.

GTE has agreed to cover about $300,000 of the cost to bring the lines to Bayfront but does not want to guarantee the additional expense for wiring inside. If it makes enough money to pay for that extra cost selling the phone lines to the media _ and that seems likely _ then it will foot the full bill. Otherwise, the city will be on the line for the money.

The price of the phone lines has not yet been set, but Treiser estimated the cost at $400 per line. With 900 to 1,000 lines expected to be sold, that price would just about cover the cost.

City officials talked to other phone companies, they said, but had no luck.

"Our original understanding with GTE was they wanted to do the whole thing as a sponsor, so there was not a lot of impetus to go elsewhere," Treiser said.