Miss Utility Beckons, But Board Not Allured

A Costly System To Locate Underground Lines

January 09, 1991|By Darren M. Allen | Darren M. Allen,Staff writer

Miss Utility is not the County Commissioners' idea of a perfect midwinter date.

But, thanks to a state law that went into effect Jan. 1, it's a date the county will have to go on.

Miss Utility, a Laurel-based company that has helped people locate buried utility lines since 1981, offers Maryland's only one-call utility-location system.

Therefore, Miss Utility must be hired by the owners of all underground utility lines -- including county and municipal governments -- by the end of the year.

"We have to join Miss Utility," Steven D. Powell, the county's management and budget director, told the not-at-all-pleased commissioners Monday afternoon. "We have to join it."

To join Miss Utility, the county has to come up with about $11,000 for the first year. The county also must spend several thousand more dollars to map all existing utility lines before joining Miss Utility.

After that, the service costs about $6,200 a year.

What the county will get for its $11,000 is a phone line hooked up to Miss Utility's Laurel offices. If anyone is about to dig for any reason, a call -- at $1.10 a pop -- has to be placed. Miss Utility will be able to look up the dig's location and pinpoint the location of cable television lines, phone lines and so on.

The state law requiring owners of utility lines to hook up with a one-call system took two years to pass through the General Assembly.

So far, Howard County and Baltimore City are the only two metro-area political jurisdictions hooked up to the system. But Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Co. and the Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. are both signed on with Miss Utility.

Miss Utility, which is part of Laurel-based One Call Concepts, had its beginnings as a department of C & P Telephone.The company's founder, Tom Hoff, ran Miss Utility for C & P for several years. He decided to take the department and form his own companywith it.

Miss Utility is not an unmarried woman with a bunch of phone lines. When the name was first used by C & P in the early 1970s,it went with the slogan "To miss the utility, call Miss Utility."

That company now has 200 employees -- 40 directly related to Miss Utility. Miss Utility itself handles 450,000 requests for information ayear and issues more than 1.5 million responses to those requests.

"We are the only company that does what we do," said Jim Holzer, Miss Utility's general manager. "By its very nature, one-call has got to be one company. If you had more than one, it would defeat the purpose of a central utility line locater."

Holzer declined to reveal the company's annual revenue. However, based on the $1.10 fee per transaction, revenues for that service alone would amount to more than $2.14 million.

Maryland is not the only state that requires utilities and owners of other underground pipelines to be part of a central locater service. However, Maryland is the only state, Holzer said, that allows utilities and governments to pass along the costs of the service to the people requesting the information.

The county is working up a fee schedule, but Powell did not release details on what those fees would be.

Powell and other county officials, however, are not pleased by the new law requiring them to court Miss Utility.

"None of us are real happy about it and the time frame in which we haveto work," Powell said yesterday.

That sentiment is echoed by Thomas J. Van de Bussche, chief of the county's Bureau of Management Information Services. In a Jan. 3 memo to Reed Muse, a civil engineering technician with the Bureau of Utilities, Van de Bussche said, "Boy, has this law put the county between a rock and hard place."

The county is not the only government entity required to hook up with Miss Utility; the municipalities are expected to sign on as well.

The Maryland Municipal League initially opposed the legislation requiring participation in a one-call utility-locater system until that legislation was amended to allow utilities and governments to charge fees forthe service.

The county is expected to contact Carroll's eight municipalities before next week to discuss ways to make Miss Utility more affordable for them, Powell said.

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