By Brandon Martin
The Henry County Board of Supervisors voted on Feb. 25 to postpone making a decision on a revised franchise agreement with Comcast.
At a public hearing on the agreement that day, some residents voiced concerns about the potential closing of the Comcast customer service station on Commonwealth Boulevard.
Ridgeway resident Mary Martin spoke against the closing.
“I think the decision to close the local store is a horrible idea. You’ve got a lot of seniors in this area who have never touched a computer. They get their checkbook, they write checks and they pay their bills. They are faithful every month,” she said.
“We shouldn’t have to pay to go to Danville to pick up a box because they are constantly changing things,” she said. “You have to upgrade to this. You’ve got to have that. In this area, that’s just not right.”
Reed Creek resident John Pegram also disagreed with closing the local store.
“It’s a terrible inconvenience for us to have to go to Danville,” he said of the closest service station.
He described having to upgrade his equipment when his cable box needed to be replaced.
“They said they would send me a free box and they would ship it to me and I would have to ship the old one back to them,” Pegram said. “The box was free but I still had to pay for the shipping. But you could also go to the store and get it. Well, if the office is in Danville, I’m still paying a $20-$30 cost to drive to Danville to get that box.”
He added that he thought some people in the area prefer face-to-face interactions when conducting business.
“To me, it’s not even thinkable that they could not have enough business to service the people in this county,” he said. “It’s ridiculous to think that everybody is going to do business on the internet. That’s not what’s happening in Henry County.”
Nathan Doherty, who works in government affairs for Comcast, attended the meeting to answer questions from the supervisors and residents.
He spoke on a variety of services provided by Comcast such as home security service, internet, cellular products and advances in video service before switching to how the company interacts with customers.
“We have at least nine places, via the Western Union partnership, where people can go pay in person,” he said. “As far as having equipment returned, we have a partnership with a local shipping shop on Commonwealth where folks can go in and have it sent back. We have ways that we can mail equipment out to customers, too.”
Collinsville Supervisor Joe Bryant asked Doherty if Comcast had considered leaving the service station open but on a part-time basis, which would allow customers to still have face-to-face interactions.
Doherty declined to comment on the service center or any business operation.
“What we are really looking for in this agreement is the flexibility as a business to make good business decisions and really operate in a way that we think will serve the community and provide the best Comcast services available,” he said.
Supervisors’ Chairman Jim Adams asked Doherty if Comcast would keep a maintenance area on Commonwealth Blvd.
“We don’t have any plans to change our business operations in terms of other types,” Doherty said.
“So, you’re saying that location will remain open as far as maintenance goes,” Bryant asked.
“Yes, we are planning on having exposure to Henry County in that location,” Doherty said.
Supervisors’ Vice Chairman Debra Buchanan said that didn’t mean the building would be open and that it would act as a location to house vehicles.
“Basically, my question was that if you are going to be staying in the building then wouldn’t it be good to have someone come in two or three days a week to handle problems,” Bryant said.
“What this agreement does is allow flexibility for Comcast,” Doherty said. “It allows us to operate so that we can provide the best service that we can.”
Bryant said that he did understand that side but “sometimes the best service for Comcast is not the best service for the elderly members of the county.”
Reed Creek Supervisor Tommy Slaughter asked if all of the services such as home security were provided to the area.
“Yes, sir,” Doherty said before explaining the internet service the company provides, “if a person qualifies and is in our footprint.”
“We’ve heard about that for years,” Slaughter said. “The thing is, the footprint isn’t getting any larger. Many people don’t get your service because they don’t have access to it. They can’t get cable out to where they would really like to have it.”
Buchanan also spoke about the need for additional “build-out” of services.
“Comcast has not invested in additional build-outs in this community,” she said. “I hear what you are saying, about if it’s economically feasible for you to do that, but internet service is important. This community has supported Comcast in the past and all we’ve asked you is to support our community. Some of the things that you say are provided by Comcast is not available in this area.”
“All of these services are available throughout the country but Henry County is receiving these services,” Doherty said.
“Not all of the services,” Buchanan said. “We’ve talked about that.”
“If they fall under the footprint,” Ridgeway Supervisor Ryan Zehr added. But in rural areas where houses are not close together, ” they (residents) aren’t going to get internet because it’s not economically feasible for Comcast to run it out there.”
“We’re always happy to look,” Doherty said.
“Right, to look, but if it’s not going to be profitable then you aren’t going to run it out there,” Zehr said.
Doherty said “this agreement is for video service only. I appreciate that there is a broadband component and people want to be part of that.”
Martin recalled that before the initial franchise agreement was agreed upon, she led a protest in Martinsville against the plan by the city to provide cable and in support of companies such as Comcast doing business in the area.
“Now I’m beginning to wonder, would that have been worse than having a bill that’s more than my car payment every month,” she added.
Speaking on the size of Comcast’s company and its merger with NBC, Martin said, “to them, we are nothing. We are a speck on the end of a pinhead to them. But we do matter.”
She also asked the board if it have considered obtaining requests for proposals from other providers.
“At least talk to other cable companies before you sign off on this, just out of respect for the citizens that elect you to make decision,” Martin said.
County Attorney George Lyle said, ” in some Western Virginia localities, companies like Shentel and others can take fiber to people’s doors and one of the services they can provide is cable television.”
He also brought up other options from companies similar to cable.
“Many other people provide this same service that are not through cable television,” he said. “When we adopted these ordnances, streaming services didn’t exist. Satellite television was in its infancy. So we have those.”
Lyle said that he was “fine if we adopt the franchise agreement today. We will probably come back and propose amendments to our cable ordinance in the future that will cover this franchise agreement and any other franchises that might want to come into the community.”
In other matters:
*County Treasurer Scott Grindstaff provided a report on delinquent tax collection efforts. As of Jan. 31, the county has collected 86.93 percent of 2019 personal property taxes and 89.60 percent of 2019 real estate taxes. The debt set-off collected is $1,250.76.
*The board approved a transfer appropriation of $173,686.32 from the Self-Insurance Fund to county, schools and social services operating budgets. This allows the expenditures for health initiatives to be appropriately represented on financial reports.
*The board appropriated $1,221 from State Asset Forfeiture funds to buy computer printers and office furniture for the Commonwealth Attorney’s office.
*Supervisors awarded a five-year contract for uniforms and doorway mats to Cintas Inc. The cumulative value over the five years of the contract will exceed $20,000. Uniforms are provided to various employees working in maintenance and other areas.
* The board appropriated the grant funds and the required matching funds totaling $71,429 for a feasibility and sustainability study for the Fieldale Recreation Center. The study will assist the center with future interior renovations and development.
*The supervisors appropriated $13,050 received from Eastman Chemical Co. for the continued participation in the Strategic Economic Environmental Design (S.E.E.D.) Beautification Program.
*A contract was awarded to Steve Martin Trenching Inc., in the amount of $829,500, for the construction of a sewer lift station at the new Adult Detention Center. Deputy County Administrator Dale Wagoner said that by paying for the sewer lift station separately from the overall contract, the county saved about $500,000.
*The board appropriated grant funds of $30,000 received from the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development for preparation of a hospitality feasibility study and marketing plan to help with ongoing community development efforts.
* Dwight Len Dillon and Steve Isley were reappointed to the Industrial Development Authority for a four-year term expiring March 31, 2024.
*Felicia Craig Preston was appointed to the Southern Area Agency on Aging Board for a term ending on Nov. 1, 2021.
*The board passed a resolution honoring the Bassett High School Band of Distinction for placing first in the Class 3A Virginia Marching Band Cooperative Championship.