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Picture improves for GrassRoots TV

Allyn Harvey

One dollar and 62 cents doesn’t seem like a lot, but when he received the check in the mail from the IRS, Sean Sunkel was ready to have it framed.

What made the bounty so sweet was the fact that the refund was for GrassRoots Television’s 1992 tax return, which had not been filed until late 1998.

Station manager Sunkel and his bosses on the GrassRoots board of directors are hoping the Internal Revenue Service will be just as generous with the station’s tardy returns for 1993, 1994, 1995 and 1996.

“We’re looking at 1992 as an indicator for what will happen with the other returns,” said board member Bonnie Kowar.

Sunkel discovered the station’s problems with the IRS last January, just two and a half months after he began managing the station. It was another blow to what many considered an organization on its last leg.

Shortly after Sunkel became the station’s third manager in a year, the board resigned en masse, leaving only the three most recently appointed members to run the show.

Sunkel found a station running on equipment that had been purchased in Ronald Reagan’s first term, but when he went to the county and city governments for help, he got more grief than money.

Sunkel had botched coverage of the county election on Nov. 4 and County Commissioner Mick Ireland made a special trip to the commissioners’ chambers to tell him how badly he was doing.

In January, less than two weeks after the station raised $23,000 at the RootsJam ’99 fund raiser, Sunkel discovered the problem with the tax returns. One of the board members who had recently resigned – an accountant no less – had failed to file the station’s returns for five years.

Even though tax-exempt organizations like GrassRoots aren’t required to pay taxes, they are required to file returns listing income and expenditures. The delinquency could have cost the station tens of thousands of dollars.

A spokesman from the IRS communications department in Washington, D.C. declined comment on the situation at GrassRoots. “During any ongoing investigation, including one of a tax-exempt organization, we’re not allowed to either confirm or deny its existence,” said Frank Keith.

But at a press conference yesterday, Sunkel, Kowar and board members Shellie Harper and Jim True weren’t bemoaning the local cable station’s recent woes. Instead, they were focusing on the present and the future.

A professional bookkeeper now visits once a month to make sure the station’s finances are in order.

Kowar, Harper and True, with the help of volunteers from the Aspen Foundation’s Executive Service Corp., have reorganized the station’s finances and rewritten its bylaws.

The size of the board has been reduced from 25 to between seven and 11, and board members are limited to two two-year terms. Applications to join the board are due at the end of this week.

“We’ve attempted to update the bylaws and make the organization more efficient and able to address changes that may occur in the future,” said True.

Including the $23,000 raised at the RootsJam concert, Sunkel has managed this year to raise another $18,000 through program underwriting, individual donations and increased government funding.

New computers for administration and programming have been installed, replacing machines bought in the mid-1980s. The city of Aspen and Pitkin County are currently negotiating with cable provider TCI for the purchase of new equipment for GrassRoots Television. Sunkel said the cable giant would be able to purchase equipment for less money than he could.

Both governments are also considering surcharges on cable bills to help fund the station.

But in spite of the progress, Sunkel and company would not proclaim the station’s troubles a thing of the past.

“I want to make it clear,” Sunkel said, “just because we raised a lot of money at RootsJam doesn’t mean we don’t need anymore help – financial or otherwise. We need all of the support we can get.”


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