Getting rid of pirate phones

Drug dealing: If city really wants to eliminate illegal pay phones, regulatory tools exist to do so.

August 08, 1999

THERE IS no excuse for the Schmoke administration's tolerance of illegal pay phones. Ample regulatory tools exist and should be used aggressively against fly-by-night operators who cheat taxpayers of annual license fees.

What has been happening in recent weeks is particularly galling. Unscrupulous independent telephone companies have been scrambling to install new pay telephones so they could try to argue that they were installed before June 1 and should be grandfathered under a new law.

That's why two pay phones installed at Monroe and Fayette streets Wednesday were covered with graffiti and the fresh concrete below them was made to look weathered. After The Sun alerted Public Works Director George G. Balog to the phones' return, he had them removed.

Pirate phones far outnumber the 592 authorized pay phones in the city. But because of the new law, city officials are reviewing some 500 applications from operators who claim their equipment should be grandfathered.

"We are overwhelmed," laments Mr. Balog, saying his crews have removed 400 illegal telephones since May, when Sun editorials first demanded action. The illegal telephones are used heavily by dealers at open-air drug markets, the site of 60 percent of Baltimore's homicides.

In addition to the new law that prescribes a $1,000 a day fine for anyone guilty of installing an illegal pay phone, seldom-enforced Maryland Public Service Commission regulations provide city officials with firepower against illegal pay phone owners. A pay telephone permit can be revoked, for example, if the call box has no information about its owner, the price of outgoing calls and charge for directory assistance; or if there are no telephone directories; or if he phone doesn't meet "state and federal height and hearing aid compatibility" regulations.

The point is this: If city officials really had the will to crack down on illegal phones, they could do it -- and maybe reduce violent crime as a bonus. What would it take to get them to muster and exercise that will?

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