State doesn't think charge for phone system for deaf can be cut

August 24, 1991|By Leslie Cauley

Marylanders will find out Sept. 4 if the monthly 45-cent charge on phone bills to provide telephone service for deaf and hearing-impaired people will be lowered, but the early word from state officials is: Don't count on it.

On that date, state officials will release the name of the winning bidder for the project and submit the winning contract to the Board of Public Works for approval. If the winning bid comes in substantially below cost estimates -- initially pegged at about $13.5 million -- the 45-cent charge could be lowered.

But don't expect that to happen before Jan. 1, if it happens at all, said John White, assistant secretary for telecommunications for the state Department of General Services, which is overseeing the project.

"We may be in a position by the end of the calendar year to go for an adjustment," Mr. White said. "But I can't predict hTC conclusively that there will be one by the first of the year."

The reason: Under the pricing plan developed by the department, large capital costs associated with setting up the new phone system for the state's deaf and hearing-impaired people will be paid off up-front, requiring heavy initial investments. Those revenue demands will diminish over time, potentially leaving room for a cut in the surcharge.

State officials, meanwhile, are looking at other ways to lower the 45-cent-a-month fee, currently the steepest such fee in the nation.

By federal law, states are required to set up phone systems to handle calls for the deaf, part of a 1990 initiative to make phone service universally available to the nation's deaf and hearing-impaired.

Maryland officials are holding talks with officials in West Virginia and the District of Columbia to see if some sort of cost-sharing arrangement can be worked out, Mr. White said. Such an arrangement could allow those two jurisdictions to share in the cost of running and operating the Maryland center in exchange for permission to route calls through Maryland, he said.

That would be welcome news for some Marylanders, who have && registered their distaste for the surcharge in record numbers to the Public Service Commission. The commission has logged over 1,000 complaints about the surcharge, which first started showing up on phone bills last month.

At 45 cents per line, Maryland's charge is as much as 15 times higher than other states'. Pennsylvania, for instance, charges 3 cents a line to cover the costs of building a phone system for its hearing-impaired.

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