Comcast acquired Time Warner in February 2014. (Matt Rourke / AP)

Thirty Minneapolis city buildings will get free basic cable for the next seven years as part of a package of concessions the city wrung out of Comcast in exchange for blessing its proposed merger with fellow cable giant Time Warner.

The free service and equipment is valued at about $50,000.

Comcast has also agreed to pay Minneapolis $40,000 in overdue franchise fees after an audit found it underpaid the city for its use of the public right of way over the last three years.

Minneapolis cable customers will see a small increase on their bills as a result of the agreement, which goes before the city council next week. It raises the fees the company collects from subscribers by 36 cents a month to support public access programming on channels 14, 79 and the Minneapolis Telecommunications Network, which will share an extra $250,000 a year as a result.

 

Comcast needs the city’s permission to transfer its franchise agreement to a spin off called GreatLand Connections. The move is part of an effort to alleviate anti-trust concerns and increase the chances of federal approval for the merger.

Comcast has offered to transfer 2.5 million customers in the Midwest and Southeast to GreatLand if the merger goes through. Greatland would be operated independently, but Comcast and Time Warner would own 67 percent of the company.

Minneapolis isn’t the only city to drive a hard bargain over the proposed merger. The Lexington, Ky., city council voted to oppose the merger last fall because leaders said Time Warner refused to address complaints from customers there. Both companies are infamous for their poor customer service.

The concessions Minneapolis won are relatively small compared to the $4.5 million it will get from Comcast this year in fees. But if you’ve ever tried to get a refund from the company, you know it probably wasn’t easy.

Economics may help explain why city contractors didn’t tow a single car from southwest Minneapolis during the year’s first snow emergency.

The city pays Rapid Recovery Inc. just $59 per vehicle to tow from that area. The towing companies that handle the other three corners of the city get paid more than twice as much for each car they bring in to the impound lot.

Rapid’s price is so much lower, because it is part of a larger $630,000 contract with the city for year-round towing.

Minneapolis encourages towing contractors to focus their efforts on areas closer to the centrally-located impound lot on Colfax Avenue North (in impound towing zone 3 on the map above).

“The tow contractors go where we tell them to go,” Deputy Public Works Director Heidi Hamilton said. “It’s not the tow truck drivers deciding to go where they’re going to make more money.”

But looking at the map of cars towed during the city’s first snow emergency, you have to wonder.

Day towed:
Day 1, SaturdayDay 2, SundayDay 3, Monday

Minneapolis Impound Lot indicated by the green arrow
Source: City of Minneapolis

While all the companies tend to cluster tows toward the edge of their territory closest to the impound lot, the trend is most pronounced in the southwest zone.

Minneapolis towing contracts are complicated. There are two major companies — Rapid and Wrecker Services, Inc. — that tow cars for the city year-round. Wrecker handles the north half of the city; Rapid has the south.

During snow emergencies, the city needs a lot more tow trucks on the road, so it carves up the map into six zones. Minneapolis assigns Wrecker the zone closest to the impound lot, and Rapid gets the southwest quadrant. Those companies are required to charge the same fee to the city they get the rest of the year.

Minneapolis bids the four other snow emergency zones out separately. Those companies get paid as much as $155 dollars per car — more than the impound lot charges owners to retrieve them.

Minneapolis obviously gets a much better deal from its major tow contractors, but is the price so good that it’s not worth Rapid’s time to haul in cars from the far corner of its territory?

The company has not returned several calls seeking comment.

Same issue comes up in St. Paul

St. Paul leaders have questioned whether its snow emergency tow contractors favor areas closest to its two impound lots, and an outside consultant is trying to help determine whether that’s the case.

The consultant may have his work cut out for him, though. Unlike Minneapolis, St. Paul doesn’t have a digital database showing the addresses where cars are towed from. Those addresses are recorded only on paper tickets, Public Works spokesman Kari Spreeman said.

Seven St. Paul libraries will be open later on Tuesday and Thursday evenings starting March 1, Library Director Kit Hadley told members of the City Council Wednesday.

The Dayton’s Bluff, Hamline Midway, Hayden Heights, Merriam Park, Rice Street, Riverview and St. Anthony libraries will stay open until 8 p.m., instead of 5:30 p.m.

The council last month overrode a veto from Mayor Chris Coleman to institute the extended hours.

Coleman objected to the funding plan, which tapped $345,000 in parking ramp revenues. He argued that money wouldn’t be sufficient to cover cost of the additional employees in future years.

The city will need to add the equivalent of 6.5 full-time employees to its payroll to staff the libraries. Most of the jobs will be “extremely part time,” Hadley said.

New Sunday afternoon hours will also go into effect at the Merriam Park branch. Those weren’t part of the funding dispute.