As deal-makers in New York plan the multi-billion-dollar sale of Adelphia Communications, the state’s biggest cable company is trying to settle contracts with more than two dozen Maine towns.

Among them are Minot, Lisbon, Norway, Paris and Poland.

“We’re trying to get as many of these cleaned up as we can,” said Mike Edgecomb, government affairs manager for Adelphia’s Maine operations.

Of 217 agreements between the company and Maine towns, 27 have either expired or will soon, Edgecomb said.

The clock is ticking.

Adelphia, the fifth-largest cable company in the nation, is about to be bought by the industry’s two biggest, Time Warner Inc. and Comcast Corp. for almost $18 billion in cash and stocks, according to The Associated Press.

“We don’t know what the conditions of the sale will be,” Edgecomb said. However, resolving contracts will make the transition easier for Adelphia’s workers.

Perhaps not for everyone, though.

Leaders in Poland, where there has been no contract since 1999, say they are waiting on the impending deal.

“Until we know what’s going to happen to the company, we don’t want to do anything,” said Richard Chick, Poland’s town manager.

The company has been through too much – its bankruptcy and the fraud convictions of its founder, John Rigas, and his son, Timothy – to take the risk, Chick said.

It’s not a bad strategy, said Pat Scully, a Portland lawyer who has consulted on many of Maine’s cable contracts, including the current 10-year deal between Adelphia and the cities of Lewiston and Auburn. That contract expires in 2009.

Scully predicted the sale of Adelphia would happen in the next three months. “If a town is just starting the process, there is nothing to be gained right now,” he said.

In Norway and Paris, the contract that covers both towns is in a similar holding pattern. The contract expired about a year ago. Since then, extensions have maintained the old agreement.

That’s fine for a while, said David Holt, Norway’s town manager.

Adelphia has offered the towns a standard contract, but Holt dismissed it as a “boiler plate” deal.

People in Norway and Paris need to spend time discussing what they need. Such issues as rising rates, funding for public access channels and the availability of cable to more of the rural towns’ residents ought to be discussed, Holt said.

Like Chick, Holt wonders what might change if the company sells.

In most cases, customer concerns can only be negotiated during contract talks. The state does not regulate cable as a utility, since it is not deemed a necessity. So, the Public Utilities Commission has no power.

Yet, subscribers to all of Maine’s cable companies complain regularly to Augusta. At the Office of the Public Advocate, which helps consumers with issues surrounding electricity, heat and telephone service, complaints come in once or twice every week, said Wayne Jortner, the office’s senior counsel.

He tells them there’s nothing he can do. Like Scully, Jortner says people need to talk about their wishes when the contracts are being renegotiated.

‘Very anxious’

In Minot, which has no full-time manager, that period may have come and gone with little notice. The town and the cable company disagree about whether a contract exists.

Last December, a 15-year contract expired. Adelphia contends that it was automatically renewed, meaning the town is bound to the company until 2019.

No way, say town leaders.

In a certified letter to the company dated April 5, town attorney James Belleau said Minot made it clear to the company before the renewal that it wished to renegotiate. The lawyer also questioned the legality of the renewal, suggesting that it violated Maine law.

The letter is currently being examined by the cable company’s lawyers, Edgecomb said.

For now, Adelphia’s position is that the deal is done. They have yet to respond to Belleau’s letter.

However, Edgecomb, who spends about 20 hours a week on contract issues, said he wants to settle the Minot deal.

So does his boss, Kathleen Hounsell, an area manager for Adelphia.

“We are very, very anxious to settle them all,” she said.

Breakout:
Currently, 217 cable contracts bind Maine towns with Adelphia Communications. Of those, 27 have either expired or will soon.


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