Audit reveals cable companies might have collected unauthorized franchise fees

About $100,000 in wrongly-collected franchise fees should soon be making their way back to Spectrum cable customers in unincorporated Platte County. 

Platte County auditor Kevin Robinson presented a report at the Monday, June 6 Platte County Commission administrative session, and commissioners approved a resolution redirecting funds mistakenly sent to the county back to Charter Communications, better known as Spectrum. The audit report was sent to the Platte County Prosecutor’s Office, and from there to the Missouri Attorney General, whose job it is to ensure the monies are properly refunded.

“Thank you, Kevin, for discovering this and taking action on it,” Platte County second district commissioner John Elliott said. 

In the audit report, which was released Wednesday, May 31, Robinson wrote that in February the county received an unexpected $47,626.98 check from Spectrum, labeled as a franchise fee payment. After investigation, he found that while the county commission could under state statute impose a franchise fee of up to 5 percent on video services, it had never done so. 

Another check from Spectrum, this time for $47,477.87, arrived in May.

Charter Communications (Spectrum) acquired Time Warner Cable in May 2016 and phased in its own billing under the Spectrum brand by late last year. According to paperwork Time Warner filed with the Missouri Public Service Commission in 2012, the provider reported it was charging a 5 percent franchise fee in unincorporated Platte County.

Customers could have been wrongfully charged this franchise fee for years. This was what prompted Robinson to send the audit results to the prosecutor.

“There is evidence that under Time Warner the fees were collected but not remitted to the county,” Robinson said. 

Based on the funds received over the last six months from Spectrum, Time Warner could have collected $650,000-$800,000 since 2012 from its customers in unincorporated Platte County. Those funds were never remitted to the county and their location is unknown, according to Robinson. 

In discussions with Platte County attorneys, Robinson found the matter could become a class action suit to recover prior collections.

“By making the citizens aware of this, I think there will be interest to see their money returned,” Robinson said. 

The county has the legal ability to audit service providers operating in its jurisdiction, and Robinson has notified Time Warner of this intent to audit. The process is complicated by Spectrum’s acquisition of Time Warner, and Robinson said he continues to await word from company representatives regarding the company’s franchise fee practices. 

Time Warner isn’t the only video service provider in the hot seat.

An investigation also showed that PowerComm Broadband had filed Public Service Commission paperwork listing a 5 percent franchise fee in Platte County. PowerComm has indicated it will amend its paperwork to remove the county franchise fee.

Time Warner and PowerComm remain under scrutiny with an additional audit forthcoming later this year to discover how much was potentially collected in franchise fees by each provider.

Robinson’s office did check other service providers operating in Platte County. 

AT&T, Fairpoint Communications, Bluebird Media and US Cable charge no finance fees, according to Missouri Public Service Commission records. Some providers operating in Platte County are not listed with the Public Service Commission. Those are Google Fiber, DirecTV, Dish Network, Comcast, AT&T Uverse, Xfinity, Cox, CenturyLink, Frontier, Mediacon, RCN and Optimum.