Cell phone users cry foul over notices of new fee

Joint ZIP code sends word of city tax to nonresidents

Brooklyn Park

August 12, 2004|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

Brooklyn Park residents are used to elevated insurance rates and mix-ups with their mail, but in the past few days, they've discovered a new reason to resent sharing a ZIP code with neighboring Baltimore - cell phone fees.

Residents of the Anne Arundel County neighborhood reviewing their July cell phone bills have spotted notes informing them that they will soon be charged an extra $3.50 a month. The reason? The Baltimore City Council voted in June to impose a new cellular fee as part of its fiscal 2005 budget.

The fee is supposed to apply only to Baltimore residents. But cell phone companies responsible for adding the charge to monthly bills sort their customers by ZIP code. So thousands of Anne Arundel residents who share the 21225 and 21226 ZIP codes with Baltimore neighborhoods may have received notice that they would have to pay the fee, which would add up to $42 a year.

"This is yet another example of the inequities that occur with what I call the ZIP code problem," said state Del. John R. Leopold, a Pasadena Republican who represents Brooklyn Park and other affected areas in northern Anne Arundel.

But representatives of Nextel and Cingular, the two cell-phone providers whose customers contacted Leopold, said Anne Arundel residents will not be billed. They said their companies used five-digit ZIP codes to send out notices of the impending fees, but plan to use more specific nine-digit codes in actually assessing the fees.

"We apologize if we've created any problems or confusion, but the tax will not be assessed," said Cingular spokeswoman Alexa Kaufman.

Added Nextel spokesman Tim O'Regan, "The good news is that no one was erroneously billed."

Leopold said he's not sure how widespread the confusion is, because affected residents could be spread over several communities and could be served by any number of cell phone carriers.

About 18,000 people live in Anne Arundel County neighborhoods that share ZIP codes with Baltimore.

Baltimore County residents also share ZIP codes with city neighborhoods, but county officials say they have not heard of any improper cell phone notices. Kaufman said she had not heard of any complaints from Baltimore County, but she and O'Regan said county residents who share ZIP codes with city neighbors probably would have received the erroneous notices.

Brooklyn Park residents say the incorrect cell phone notices are only the latest examples of confusion caused by shared ZIP codes.

"That ZIP code is really a sore spot around here," said Brooklyn Park resident Elmer Chambers, one of two people who contacted Leopold this week about the improper cell charges.

Chambers said he called Cingular after reading the fee notice but was told that customer service representatives could not do anything to prevent his getting an erroneous bill. But, he said, a representative told him that he could contest an erroneous bill after receiving it.

Like many Brooklyn Park residents, Chambers has seen his mail accidentally delivered to Baltimore and felt annoyed when people confused his neighborhood with the Brooklyn section of the city. He has heard neighbors complain that they pay exorbitant insurance rates because companies assume they live in Baltimore.

"It's really a source of great consternation," Leopold said of the shared ZIP code. The Pasadena delegate formally asked the U.S. Postal Service to separate Anne Arundel and Baltimore postal codes in 1995 and 2000 but was rejected both times.

Rick Davis, president of Brooklyn Park's community association, said he hadn't heard complaints on the cell phone fee.

"But that sounds like something they would do," he said. "I know I'm certainly going to check my bill now. It's an impact fee we shouldn't have to be dealing with."

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