City cell phone tax error rings familiar with county residents

ZIP codes that cross over Baltimore line subject some to billing and mail mix-ups

October 10, 2004|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,SUN STAFF

When Baltimore County residents Danielle and Charles Slike called their cellular phone company to complain about being mistakenly charged a city tax, they were told to call their city councilman.

"We don't have a city councilman. That's the point," Danielle Slike, a Verizon Wireless customer who lives just over the city line, said her husband told the representative.

The Idlewylde residents aren't the only people in Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties trying to make the point that although they might share a ZIP code with the city, they shouldn't have to pay city taxes.

With 38 Baltimore ZIP codes that include portions of Baltimore or Anne Arundel counties, some customers have found themselves having to prove to their cell phone carriers where they live.

The experience can be maddening.

"It just appears they're unwilling to see if they've made a mistake," said Josh Glikin, a Verizon Wireless customer and lawyer from Anneslie.

Danielle Slike said that talking on the phone with Verizon got her husband nowhere. They hope a letter will get the company's attention.

"It's frustrating," she said. "What got us so mad was that they weren't acknowledging the fact that we're county residents. They assumed all of the 21239 ZIP was in the city."

"It was like a broken record: `Talk to your city councilman,'" she said.

Dorothy Jewell, a retired nurse from the county side of Mount Washington, went so far as to copy her voter registration card to convince Cingular that although her 21209 ZIP code includes a portion of the city, she lives in the county.

Representatives from Verizon Wireless, Cingular and Nextel said problems with the $3.50 monthly city tax erroneously appearing on county customers' bills are not widespread.

John H. Johnson, a spokesman for Verizon Wireless, said the company uses software that provides the municipality for a street address instead of relying on ZIP codes for billing. "That process is not 100 percent accurate, but it is highly accurate," he said.

Johnson said he was aware of fewer than a dozen city tax billing errors. To prevent problems such as the ones the Slikes and Glikin encountered, customer service representatives have been reminded to direct county customers with complaints about the city tax to a group within the company that is handling the problem.

The Baltimore City Council passed the cellular phone tax in June, leaving it to individual carriers to add the charge to monthly bills. Some northern Anne Arundel County residents received notices that they would be charged the new fee, prompting Del. John R. Leopold, a Pasadena Republican, to call the cellular companies, which promised that billing software would correct the mistakes before they were made on bills.

Leopold said this week that it appeared that residents of the 21225 and 21226 ZIP codes who mistakenly received the notice were not billed for the city cell phone fee.

Brooklyn Park resident Elmer Chambers, one of the Cingular customers who alerted Leopold to the incorrect billing notices, said he was never charged.

"It wasn't on the bill, so it wasn't a problem," he said.

To those Anne Arundel County residents, the notice was just the latest mistake - from elevated insurance rates to mix-ups with their mail - that stems from sharing a ZIP code with the city. "A sore spot" is how Chambers described the ZIP code issue in August.

Leopold said errors with other bills that are based on ZIP codes persist.

"It's been a big problem," said Leopold, who said an informal survey of constituents in the northern part of the county found many paying city rates for car insurance.

Bob Novak, a spokesman for the U.S. Postal Service, said the ZIP codes sometimes follow the borders of municipalities, but that "ZIP codes are established for postal operations only, not to identify communities or municipal boundaries."

Cingular, which uses nine-digit ZIP codes for billing, was quick to fix Jewell's bill. Spokeswoman Alexa Kaufman said it didn't appear that many other county customers had been mistakenly assessed the city tax.

Nextel had sent some of its customers notices about the new tax, but spokesman Tim O'Regan said the company has received no complaints about the tax appearing on bills.

Glikin, the Verizon customer from Anneslie, said he has encountered billing problems a few times - including with an insurance bill - because his 21212 ZIP code is shared by city neighborhoods such as Govans and Cedarcroft. His insurance carrier was quick to adjust his bill, he said, but Verizon Wireless has not removed the fee from his bill.

It's not just the principle of the billing error, he said, adding, "It's about the money, too."

With two cell phones, the tax would add up to $84 a year for him.

Sun staff writer Childs Walker contributed to this article.

Checking your cellular phone bill

For customers who live in postal districts that cross the city line, here is what to check on your phone bill to see whether a city tax is being imposed:

On Verizon Wireless bills, the $3.50 city tax appears as a "Baltimore City Tele. Line Chrg." under the surcharge portion of the bill. Customers who believe they've been assessed the fee incorrectly should call 800-922-0204.

On Nextel bills, the tax appears as "Baltimore City surcharge." Nextel customers who believe they've been assessed the fee incorrectly should call 800-639-6111.

On Cingular bills, the tax appears as "Baltimore City surcharge" under the heading Credit Adjustments and Other Surcharges. To complain about being improperly charged this fee, call 866-246-4852.

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