Meet GMA’s Consultant: Greg Fender
Many of you may know Greg Fender. He provides technical assistance to local governments on negotiating franchise and pole attachment agreements with companies that utilize a city’s right of way and facilities. He also assists cities in figuring out how they can maximize the revenue collected from companies that use their public right of way. For Greg, it’s important to make sure local governments are compensated the correct amount of money and that companies comply with local ordinances.
Greg works hard to make sure cities receive the maximum amount of revenue allowed by federal and state law. He says, “It’s in the taxpayer’s interest. The more we can maximize those type of revenues will result, in local governments relying less on property tax revenue. And those efforts let citizens know that companies using the city’s infrastructure, rights of way, and governmental facilities are paying their fair share and that the city is not subsidizing a private company.”
So how did Greg get started in this industry, and from where does his passion stem? To find out, we sat down with Greg to discuss his background, his enthusiasm for helping cities, and the importance of GMA’s cable and telecommunications program.
How did you get started in cable and telecommunications? What lit the spark for you?
In 1986, I started working with GMA as manager of marketing for the employee benefits and risk management programs. During my initial 7 years with GMA, I developed a strong interest and respect for how cities pooled their resources together to create cost-effective programs for life and health insurance, workers compensation, and GMA’s statewide retirement system.
Because I had a political science background, I expressed to GMA in 1992 some interest in lobbying. As one of my first lobbying assignments I worked with several cities that expressed interest in possibly amending the Revenue Bond Act to allow them to use revenue bonds to build and operate their own cable systems. This was in response to many citizens complaining about cable rates going up combined with poor service from the cable companies. Many of these cities were full utility cities that already provided electric, gas, and water services, so going into cable seemed like a natural evolution.
Of course, the Georgia Cable Association did not support this initiative and the Georgia General Assembly basically said, “You two work this out and come back to us.” So, we created a committee made up of cable association and city representatives. I was assigned to serve as the staff liaison for that committee.
In the process of doing research for that committee about cable and television law, I read an article about a couple of cities’ in the Northeast whose franchise renewals were up with their local cable company. The cities didn’t have the expertise to negotiate with the company and they realized it would be quite expensive to bring in an auditor to determine if the cable companies were paying them correctly, for an engineer to determine what type of systems the community would like to support, and to acquire the legal expertise to draw up a proper document. So, the two cities decided to pool their resources and jointly hire the professionals needed to help them.
When I read that article, a light went on in my head: Why stop at two cities? Why not pool every city in the state, and then hire experts to help the cities do these things?
What then led from that idea to the program we know today?
Around the same time, the 1992 Cable Television Consumer Protection and Competition Act was a sea change for local governments because it allowed them to regulate cable television rates. However, the published FCC rules was about the size of the Atlanta phone book—intimidating to read and full of technical jargon. Basically, if a city wanted to regulate cable television rates, they had to set themselves up as a sort of miniature public service commission.
We saw quickly that there was an opportunity to hire the expertise to make our cable and telecommunications services a turnkey program for cities, including helping them regulate cable rates. We’d help remove the complexities and the cities would pay an annual fee to enable us to hire the expertise for our members.
When we did a survey of Georgia cities, about 150 expressed a strong interest and said they would support the program. And some cities like LaGrange said they wanted to see GMA do more than just help regulate cable rates. They wanted to receive assistance with negotiating franchise and pole attachment agreements, and they were interested in audits to determine if they were being paid correctly. LaGrange played a huge role in laying out the basis for the GMA program that we know today.
Based on this feedback, we expanded the scope and had a huge number of cities join the program. Jim Burgess (executive director of GMA at the time) encouraged me to build this program from the ground up. And when I started my own business in 2002, I applied the same concept to cities in other states that had the same need. 20 years later, GMA’s program still works off that same initial concept that GMA used in August 1993.
Why do you feel passionate about working with cities?
Government was my passion when I chose to study political science in college. When I initially started looking at working in public service, I thought concentrating on local government would be a great way to spend my career helping people. One of the most rewarding things about providing the cable and telecommunications management service is to see how much local government personnel seem to appreciate our help.
One of the great things about working for GMA is that you learn quickly that it’s an association of local governments—not just large governments. To be a successful association, you must treat and serve all cities the same regardless of size. My son (who also works for me) and I are both just very appreciative of playing a part in GMA’s overall mission.
What do you find most challenging about your work?
I’m always thinking about the best business model to reach all cities. It kills me to know that cities will sign contracts with cable and telecommunications companies that they trust because of their marketing efforts or brand name. After 20 years of doing this work, I can say without exaggeration that I’ve hardly ever seen a company—and it doesn’t matter which company—present a document written with the city’s best interest in mind. I want to get the word out to all cities, like a “call before you dig” warning, to “call before you sign.” Cities need to know that cable and telecommunications companies are in the business of providing a return to shareholders. It’s GMA’s business—and my passion—to help cities sign documents that are written in the city’s interest.