Arbutus man fights city levy

Consuming Interests

October 24, 2006|By Dan Thanh Dang | Dan Thanh Dang,Sun Columnist

Clifford Hartley Dorr was utterly "disgusted" when he saw the $3.50 Baltimore Telecom Surcharge on his Cingular Wireless bill.

As a longtime Baltimore County resident, Dorr kindly explained, he took great exception to being charged a Baltimore City cell phone tax. A reasonable gripe, most certainly.

Adding fuel to his resentment, Dorr noticed early in the summer that his $19.99-a-month service plan for 50 anytime minutes suddenly jumped to $29.99 for 100 anytime minutes. With that jump in price, Dorr was spending hours on the phone every month calling the Atlanta-based company's customer service line to tell them that he had never requested a higher-priced plan, nor did he need it. In fact, Dorr spent more time talking to Cingular than people he wanted to talk to.

"Look, I only carry my cell phone in case of emergencies," said the 79-year-old, who was born and raised in Baltimore and has lived in Arbutus for 13 years. His home is three blocks outside the city.

"And every other Saturday, I call a fellow in Stevensville who I used to work with to say hello. That's it. I never go over my allotted 50-minute calling plan.

"Every month for the last four months, I've explained to [Cingular] I didn't request this calling plan," Dorr said. "When the tax showed up, I called and explained to them that I haven't lived in Baltimore City for about 25 years. No one seems to know what to do and I'm tired of calling. I'm aggravated because the whole thing is just silly."

What isn't so silly is that Dorr's original $26-and-change monthly bill grew to $40-plus a month. That's a lot for a retiree on a fixed income, he said.

"I guarantee you that my wife would not write a $40-something check without an explanation," Dorr said. "Every dollar counts. I think the average customer would just quit the company because it's so frustrating."

I immediately relayed Dorr's dissatisfaction to Cingular's regional spokesman, Alexa Kaufman.

The rate problem was a relative cinch. Cingular stopped offering a $19.99 plan for 50 anytime minutes a couple of years ago. As a result of an updating of records, Dorr was bumped up to the closest comparable calling plan.

"But Mr. Dorr should have been made aware of the change," Kaufman said.

It took a little more than a week, but Ray Armstrong, who works in Cingular's office of the president, called Dorr to inform him that a $10 credit would be added to his bill every month to bring the total back to the original, now-extinct $19.99 plan. That $10 credit will stay in effect until 2008, at which point Dorr will have to decide whether to sign on to a plan or cut ties to join another company.

"I'm staying with them just for that," Dorr said.

The second problem, however, took some doing to settle.

First, some relevant background:

Two years ago, when the city cell phone tax was implemented, there was a huge outcry. The initial protest came from cellular companies, who griped that their customers were already paying exorbitant taxes and fees. They immediately filed suit against the city and in Montgomery County (which also collects a cell phone levy), arguing that neither jurisdiction has the authority to tax wireless services. The companies lost, but an appeal might be in the works.

The other big objection came later from unsuspecting county cell phone owners, which relates to Dorr's situation. When the tax started, many county cellular customers who shared a ZIP code with their neighbors in the city were incorrectly billed for the city tax. To make a long story short, all cellular companies set up hotlines, jiggered with their computer systems and reportedly cleared up the mess.

Cingular no longer has a telephone line devoted to the city telecom surcharge.

"I thought we had cleaned all those problems up," Kaufman said. "We'll need to certify Mr. Dorr's address. It shouldn't be a difficult issue."

Sounds simple, right?

It took me 10 minutes to verify Dorr's address.

The Maryland Department of Assessments and Taxation's online data search shows that Dorr's Beechfield Avenue address is clearly in the county and that he purchased the house 13 years ago. Dorr's 21229 ZIP code is shared by the city, but his address can be found only in the Stewart Baltimore County Criss Cross Directory. It's nowhere to be found in the city Criss Cross. Google Maps shows Dorr's address in the county. For good measure, a visit to the U.S. Postal Service's Web site also lists Dorr's residence as a county address.

"I'm a retired letter carrier," Dorr said. "I know ZIP codes. I was a city boy. I know where I live. I don't live in the city."

I was convinced. Not that Kaufman and Cingular weren't, but they do have a corporate process to follow. It took Cingular a little more than two weeks to verify the address with Baltimore and figure out what happened.

Kaufman says Cingular had more trouble pinpointing why a city tax charge would suddenly appear on Dorr's bill after he had service with the company for six years.

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