Madison TV 15 plans to branch out in coming years in an effort to boost the area’s tourism industry, but they’ll need to recoup thousands in revenue misplaced into the county’s general fund first.

The public access station, which was founded in 1992 by the Cable Advisory Board in an interlocal agreement between Madison, Jefferson County and the Town of Hanover, provides video coverage of local government and school board meetings and has plans for new programming, TV 15 Board members Jan Vetrhus and Tawana Thomas told Jefferson County Council Tuesday night at its regular meeting. However, the station’s potential has been limited for years because of 75% of franchise fees being errantly funneled into the county’s general fund rather than going back to the station for salaries, new equipment and other upgrades, Vetrhus said.

As a result, TV 15 is operating on a budget of about $30,000 to cover the salaries of a few employees and ongoing costs of replacing equipment, some of which is now 14 years old, she explained. Staff members also have not seen a raise in 14 years.

“We are not able to do the job that we’re supposed to do. And I think the COVID experience has really shown us that we need good TV access and accessibility to our residents when they can’t actually come to meetings,” Vetrhus said.

Thomas gave council members a rundown of the station’s goals for next year and explained how public access stations are funded. Cable companies are required to report gross revenue collection to the federal government, 5% of which goes to the state of Indiana. The state will redeem a portion of that 5%, then send the rest to local communities, she said. Cable companies can change hands and ownership over the years, but the obligation to the public remains the same.

Jefferson County and Hanover are in on the agreement and provide representation on the board, but Madison is the only body providing direct resources like Internet and office space in the basement of Madison City Hall.

Thomas said that when funding is fixed, the city hopes to start using TV 15 for tourism videos that will be played in every hotel, cottage and bed and breakfast collecting an innkeeper’s tax for residents to learn more about Madison and the sights to see here.

“The first time that visitor lays their suitcase down and turns the TV on, the first thing they see is a ‘Welcome to Madison,’ whether that be from a county commissioner, or a mayor, or a tourism representative, or even the owner of the bed and breakfast — ‘Here’s what you need to see while you’re here,’ ” she explained to the council.

A lot of other cities throughout the U.S. are working on similar videos for tourists, she said. Plans might also be in place for TV 15 to start broadcasting meetings live and create content beyond public meetings, but the station will need the funds it’s entitled to under law, especially since it cannot advertise due to being a public video service. Efforts would also be made to find sponsorships as an alternative, after the funding situation is fixed, Thomas said.

Because the county is accustomed to that money in the general fund, Vetrhus said her board is only asking for 50% of the franchise fees outright, although not all of that will be needed for this year. She wasn’t sure what the station earned so far this year, but said it brought in about $53,000 in 2019. Funds might also help the station find better office space, as the basement at city call recently flooded and disrupted operations for a few days, Kenny Garrett, president of Hanover Town Council and a member of the TV 15 Board reminded the council.

Vetrhus said she understood the county was using the money in the general fund, but the funds were greatly needed for operation and hiring a new executive director following the passing of former director Dennis Crank last year. That job will be posted in the next couple weeks, she said.

Council members were sympathetic to the problem and expressed an urge to fix it going forward. Member Joe Craig said the allocation could have started at 15% for whatever reason, but no one thought to look again as years went on. Garrett said that amount had been the same since he joined the board roughly six years ago.

“(Interim director) Aaron (Wood) has done a phenomenal job with what they’ve got to work with. But it can only grow so much with the funds that will let it grow, and that’s what we’re trying to address,” Garrett said.

In other business:

• Sheriff Dave Thomas reported that plans are in the works to conduct jury trials at the Venture Out Business Center on Industrial Drive. His department currently has about $123,000 left from the $500,000 transferred from County Council earlier in the year to cover out-of-county inmates, he said. As of Tuesday, 57 inmates were housed out of county, a financial burden that will slightly improve next month when Crawford County Jail lowers its price from $25 to $20 per inmate.

The Jefferson County Jail population remains just under capacity at 116 inmates, but most can’t be released due to being violent felons and having bond amounts that are either too high to pay or do not exist, Thomas said. The Sheriff’s Office is already under watch from the American Civil Liberties Union if the population exceeds capacity by just one inmate, he said.

— Garrett presented the Council with new improvements to Hanover Park, including new fencing, toppers for two new baseball fields, a new volleyball court and a new tennis building/shelterhouse bought with county donations. The total cost of those projects over the last three years was around $37,000 and the county covered nearly half the expenses, he said, thanking council members. Town Council is now requesting $5,000 for the Hanover Parks Department and another $5,000 for a matching grant to benefit senior activities at the park complex.