Fort Oglethorpe officials are hoping to determine whether local service providers are unknowingly paying the municipality less than expected.

Each year, Fort Oglethorpe receives a 5 percent franchise fee from any cable or telecommunications company, like AT&T or Comcast, that installs equipment on city property to provide services within the community.

For years, however, the city has not audited the companies to ensure they are in compliance with that agreement, said City Manager Jennifer Payne-Simpkins.

Since state and local franchise fee laws can change constantly, the oversight means the city might not be collecting the full amount of revenue it's owed. To investigate the issue, city council members last week gave municipality officials the green light to enter into a $5,000 contract with the Georgia Municipal Association to enlist its services.

Through GMA's Telecommunications and Right of Way Management program, representatives from the association will audit Fort Oglethorpe's franchise agreements to determine whether the fees are being paid correctly. If the city is being underpaid, GMA will work with the companies to collect the missing dollars from the past three years.

"We believe the benefit will be much greater than the $5,260 [contract with GMA]," Payne-Simpkins said during the June 11 council meeting.

While Mayor Earl Gray agreed that the contract was a "good investment," he stressed that the cable and telecommunications companies were likely not to blame for any unpaid fees that may be discovered.

"I don't think we have any companies that have intentionally been ... not paying us," he said.

Instead, Gray pointed the finger at the U.S. Postal Service, which assigns four different ZIP codes to the city when it should only have one. Within city limits, Fort Oglethorpe bears ZIP codes for Rossville, Ringgold and Chickamauga, in addition to its own.

The issue has complicated everything from tax collection to emergency service responses, Gray continued.

"We're just kind of beating our head against the wall," he said.

During his tenure on the council, Gray said he has gone to Washington, D.C., on three separate occasions to try to rectify the ZIP code designation matter with no success. He said the franchise fee issue could likely be another manifestation of that larger problem.

"That's just one thing we've worked on for years and years," Gray said after the council meeting. "GMA said they can help us with it, so we're going to let them try to help us with it."

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