City's ZIPs raise ire in Arundel

Identical digits affect car insurance rates

June 19, 2000|By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan | Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan,SUN STAFF

Woody Bowen has lived in northern Anne Arundel County's Brooklyn Park community for more than 50 years. He pays county taxes, his driver's license notes that he's an Anne Arundel resident, and he is so proud of living in Brooklyn Park that he's vice president of its civic association.

Yet Bowen's address officially ends as "Baltimore, Md. 21225."

Bowen, 57, is among the more than 18,000 Anne Arundel residents who live south of the city line but share a ZIP code with Baltimore neighborhoods.

They say that for years they have been charged higher auto insurance rates than other county residents and have met with confusion in the myriad official situations in which they must provide an address.

Now they are appealing to the U.S. Postal Service to step in and give them their own ZIP code.

"The federal government may think it's a picky thing, but it's a big issue here," said Bowen, vice president of the Olde Brooklyn Park Improvement Association.

"We want our own ZIP code to show that we are residents of Anne Arundel County."

Irene Lericos, a spokeswoman for the Postal Service's Baltimore region, said several communities outside the city share city ZIP codes, but requests for a change have been rare.

She said the process takes several months and emphasized that the Postal Service issues ZIP codes to ensure the most efficient delivery of mail.

Lericos said the Postal Service decides to alter a community's ZIP code only if the area has the population to support its own code and if mail can be delivered more efficiently with the change.

In Anne Arundel, at least three other communities share a ZIP code with Baltimore: Orchard Beach, Clearwater Beach and Stoney Beach have the same 21226 ZIP code as some southern Baltimore neighborhoods.

The Brooklyn Park area's population has declined -- from 14,080 in 1980 to 13,076 this year. But the population of Anne Arundel neighborhoods in the 21226 ZIP code has increased, growing from 3,560 in 1980 to 5,734 this year.

Many complaints

Because the population is growing in the 21226 area, Del. John R. Leopold, a 31st District Republican who represents those Anne Arundel County communities, said it makes sense for the Postal Service to group the affected areas and give them a ZIP code.

Leopold unsuccessfully lobbied the Postal Service in 1995 to change the ZIP codes for all the affected county communities.

He said he'd heard numerous complaints about the issue from residents -- some of whom managed to get lower auto insurance premiums after supplying copies of tax records or driver's licenses to prove that they did not live in Baltimore.

"It shouldn't be that they have to jawbone for equity," said Leopold, who sent a letter to the Postal Service recently requesting the ZIP code changes. "It's a serious matter when residents have to pay a financial penalty because of their ZIP code."

At least a few county residents with Baltimore ZIP codes who, because of a different grouping system, pay lower rates than their city neighbors.

Bowen said frustrations with the shared ZIP codes first surfaced about 10 years ago at a community association meeting, when someone suggested researching whether Brooklyn Park residents paid higher auto insurance rates than other county counterparts.

Bowen said calls to insurance companies confirmed their speculation: Brooklyn Park residents were paying higher premiums.

"It wasn't just that Allstate did it or Nationwide did it," Bowen said.

At that time, Bowen said, "all companies used that policy" of charging more to clients who had a Baltimore ZIP code.

Bob Becker, associate commissioner for property and casualty for the Maryland Insurance Administration, said auto insurance companies are allowed to determine rates based on "territories." Companies often define territories using ZIP codes, he said.

Different formula

Chuck Kline, GEICO's assistant vice president for pricing, said his company also uses ZIP codes to determine auto insurance rates, but follows a different formula.

He said GEICO groups ZIP codes for areas that are close to one another and charges all policyholders in those areas the same rate.

Kline said the 21225 and 21226 ZIP codes are grouped with four ZIP codes in Anne Arundel County that encompass Linthicum, Pasadena and Glen Burnie, so GEICO policyholders in those city ZIP codes pay less than most Baltimore residents do.

"We group together ZIP codes that have a similar experience," Kline said.

"We try not to pay attention to city and county lines."

Matt Stegle, spokesman for Allstate Insurance, said that even though residents such as Bowen technically do not live in Baltimore, they may be charged higher premiums because of their proximity to the city, not just because of their ZIP codes.

"It costs more to insure cars that are in a place where there's a whole lot of cars," Stegle said.

"If there are more cars, there's more likelihood they're going to get in an accident. In a territory right out in the country, there's fewer cars, so there's going to be fewer thefts, fewer accidents.

"If you didn't have territorial rating, people out in the country would be helping to subsidize rates of people who live in more populated areas."

Lericos suggested that Leopold meet with Postal Service officials in Baltimore to discuss the issue. Leopold said he is waiting for a reply to his letter requesting the ZIP code change before deciding how to proceed.

"It's frustrating," said Geraldine Meluh, 80, who has lived in Orchard Beach since 1963. "You know there isn't anything you can do with your insurance company unless the government changes your ZIP code."

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