A vendor has submitted a proposal to the state Department of General Services that, if approved, could lead to a reduction in the controversial 45-cent charge on monthly phone bills to provide phone service for the deaf and hearing-impaired.
According to a source familiar with the bidding process, at least one vendor competing for the contract to build Maryland's new telephone system has indicated that it can complete the project for less than state officials initially projected.
If that vendor's bid is accepted by the Board of Public Works, the 45-cent surcharge might be reduced, said the source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The 45-cent surcharge is calculated on start-up costs of $13.5 million. Because the department isn't allowed to make a profit, any reduction in costs would mean the surcharge would have to be lowered.
It could not be determined yesterday how much the surcharge might fall, but any reduction will no doubt be welcomed by consumers, many of whom have been complaining to various state offices since the surcharge started showing up on phone bills earlier this month.
The Public Service Commission has been deluged with more than 1,500 complaints. Additional complaints -- though not as many --have been received at the governor's office and by legislators in Annapolis.
By federal law, states are required to set up telephone 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. Toward that end, states are imposing surcharges to help pay for the new systems.
At 45 cents, Maryland's surcharge is the steepest of its type in the nation. Neighboring Pennsylvania, for example, is charging residential customers 3 cents per line a month to cover the costs of building a telephone system for its hearing-impaired population.
Georgia charges 7 cents, Hawaii 12 cents and Delaware 13 cents. Wyoming has the second-highest fee in the nation at 25 cents -- a little more than half the Maryland rate.
The General Services Department is keeping mum on whether the surcharge may fall. But state officials privately acknowledge that a reduction would probably help take some heat off the department.
The heat was turned up earlier this week when Gov. William Donald Schaefer called for the department to "justify every cent" of the monthly surcharge.
In a directive released Tuesday, Mr. Schaefer told Martin W. Walsh Jr., department secretary, that he must justify the 45-cent charge to the Board of Public Works at its Sept. 4 meeting.
The board, headed by the governor, is to review the winning contract for final approval on that day.
"If [Mr. Walsh] can justify every cent of it, then the 45 cents will stay. But if we can do it without charging the full 45 cents, then that's what we'll do," said Page Boinest, a spokeswoman for the governor.
Similar sentiments were expressed by Delegate Dana Lee Dembrow, D-Montgomery, who wrote a letter to the governor earlier this month in which he asked for a thorough review of the cost estimates.
Mr. Dembrow, a co-sponsor of the bill that set 45 cents as the surcharge ceiling, said that the General Services Department led him to believe that Maryland's surcharge would be in the 20- to 25-cent range.
Mr. Dembrow said that he was "surprised" when the maximum 45-cent charge was imposed from the outset. "Nobody expected it to go immediately to the ceiling from the very first moment," he said.