Page 23


By Mitch Green Houston If you’ve ever had a run-in with the folks at Ma Bell, you know their promise not to act like “the only phone company in town” can have a hollow ring to it. Protection from the arbitrary and callous indifference the company sometimes exhibits is not easy to come by. But there may be some relief due Houston consumers with gripes about Bell’s deposit policy. Although everyone from the city attorney to the public service director to the flak for the phone company has played it down, an old and obscure city ordinance promises some slight improvement in the odds. The pre-1942 ordinance was unearthed by Gene Harrington and the Texas Consumers Association. “We went looking for some kind of response to the most recent request for a rate increase,” says Harrington, “and we got lucky.” THE ORDINANCE limits the amount the phone company can demand for a deposit to twice the monthly bill. The ordinance goes on to provide for the return of deposits, with 6 percent interest, after only two months. Deposit policy is a sore spot between the phone company and a lot of customers. While twice-the-monthly-bill \(including the company has no written policy. The decision is made by whichever service representative happens to answer your call. “These girls do a hell of a good job,” says Kent Brasel, the Southwestern Bell p.r. man in Houston. But Brasel admits that their decisions are rarely overturned on appeal. Calls to service reps in three different exchanges got three different responses on deposit policy. They ranged from the opinion that a deposit might not be required to a firm guarantee that $50 or even $60 would be necessary before service could be made available. The official Bell guidelines are based on employment and credit. Although it’s officially denied, your address plays a role. Certain “bad addresses” are viewed as high risk areas and higher deposits are required 12 The Texas Observer at them. Deposits plus 6 percent interest are refundable only after the phone company decides a “good paying record” has been established. That takes anywhere from six months to a year, instead of the two months spelled out in the ordinance. In the meantime Bell has what is essentially a $4 million loan fund for which it pays only half the interest it would have to dish out to a bank. According to Brasel, this is good for consumers because it helps keep operating costs down and that keeps rates down. Television news coverage of a TCA demonstration produced a flood of customer requests for deposit money. The phone company is complying, but instructing service reps to demand the money back as soon as there is a problem with paying subsequent bills. THE ORDINANCE also has things to say about some of the other less popular phone company practices, like cutting off your phone service. The ordinance can be interpreted to prohibit Bell from discontinuing service if the customer is refusing to pay in a dispute over unsatisfactory service. It may also prohibit the company’s habit of charging $15 installation fees on “new connections” where previous tenants’ phones are still in place and in operation. \(Company policy is a bit vague here, too. Calls to service representatives yielded the information that the fee is charged whether installation work is necessary or not, unless the old Brasel is less than worried about the discovery of the ordinance. His position is that the phone company is basically fair, well-intentioned and in compliance with the spirit, if not the letter, of all regulatory laws. He also pointed out that state law would supersede any local ordinances anyway. Not to be outdone, Harrington and the TCA have dug up a state law of their own another old and previously obscure piece of legislative craftsmanship. This one dates from 1907, and it gives county commissioners the right to fine phone companies $10 a day if they unreasonably deny service to anyone. \(It was originally intended to force phone companies to Having laws on the books is one thing; getting them enforced is another. Houston City Attorney Jonathan Day reassuringly points out that the city “usually makes a practice of enforcing its ordinances . . . ordinarily.” Both Day and Asst. City Attorney Ed Cazares say they have no information the phone company is not in compliance. The law is enforceable, says Cazares, but only if someone presses the issue with a specific complaint. Mike Schneider, the assistant district attorney in charge of consumer affairs, has never heard of the state law. “We’re sometimes unhappy about how the phone company operates, about their apparent callous disregard for people,” he says, “but we have never made a fraud case against them. No matter how unhappy people are, no matter how poor the service and how high the rates, we can’t make a case unless we can prove fraud.” FRAUD AND deposit policy are not the main gripes with the phone company. High rates and poor service are. Southwest Bell in Houston is having the kind of trouble in both those areas that prevents the phone company from winning the hearts and minds o _f the people. At one point last year customer complaints were coming in from almost 12 percent of phone subscribers and the company was missing an equal percentage of installation appointments. Poor planning and bad weather left both expansion and maintenance programs far enough behind to necessitate a call for one thousand emergency workers from other Bell systems. While the cost of using these workers cannot be included in the current request for a rate increase, their salaries are certain to show up in future requests. Bell’s current rate increase request is before the city council. This one is for 19 percent and comes just a little over a year after an 11 percent hike. The city council held onto the last request for over a year. The phone company might expect just as long a wait this time because utility rate increases are not real popular with Houston voters right now. All this leaves consumers right where many folks insist they have always been in dire need of a statewide utilities commission. Musty old ordinances and obscure laws are fun and have a certain quaint charm, but they are no substitute for clear statewide legislation. The presentation, debate and defeat of a utilities regulation bill is a regular tradition in the Legislature. Jack Hooper, a private utility consultant advising the Ad Hoc Legislative Study Group \(which is researching utility legislation for the next ever before. The prospect of passing a law that will be uncovered and used sixty years from now must be tempting to some legislators. Hooper claims the 29 who are funding the study group are firm in their support for a strong piece of reform legislation, one that will offer consumers protection from utilities right now. The writer is a former news director at KPFT-FM in Houston and a former member of Space City Video.