ANNAPOLIS -- Top state officials unanimously agreed yesterday to spend $32.5 million over the next three years to set up and operate a federally required telephone relay system to help the deaf and hearing impaired make phone calls.
But as the Board of Public Works awarded the contract to Sprint Systems of Shawnee Mission, Kan., a division of US Sprint, stateGeneral Services Secretary Martin W. Walsh Jr. announced that a controversial 45-cent monthly phone bill surcharge established in July to pay for the system could be reduced to 31 cents by January.
About 1,500 consumers have complained to the Public Service Commission that the surcharge is too high. But Mr. Walsh said yesterday that it must remain at the 45-cent level through the end of the year to raise the money needed to buy the equipment to set up the relay system.
Even if the surcharge is dropped to 31 cents a month, the Maryland surcharge will still be the highest in the nation. The next highest is Wyoming's 25-cent monthly charge.
Gov. William Donald Schaefer, who chairs the three-member Board of Public Works and who recently demanded that Mr. Walsh "justify every cent" of the surcharge, seemed convinced yesterday that the figure was justified. He said that the surcharge controversy had overshadowed the importance of establishing a telephone link to the world for an estimated 350,000 Marylanders who are deaf or have a serious hearing impairment.
"The point is, we're doing something for people who have had a problem for years and were ignored," he said. "We ought to be congratulating the state for moving forward."
Once the program is operational -- possibly by year's end -- someone with a hearing disability should be able to call a toll-free number to reach a relay system operator. The operator would complete the call, serving as a go-between for the caller and the person called.
Mr. Walsh said that callers using the system would pay the usual cost of their calls, whether they are local or long-distance, but the cost of the services of the relay operator would be subsidized by the surcharge on all telephone customers.
The amount of the surcharge could drop further, Mr. Walsh said, to as low as 25 cents if there are fewer than 150,000 calls per month, or to 18 cents if there are no more than 75,000 to 100,000 calls per month.
But John White, assistant secretary for telecommunications at the Department of General Services, said that if use of the relay system exceeds expectations, the surcharge could go back up toward the 45-cent ceiling set by the General Assembly.
The 45-cent figure was based on expected first-year start-up cost of $13.5 million. In addition to equipment, that figure includes the estimated cost of two eight-minute calls per month by an estimated 100,000 persons with hearing disabilities.
The relay service was required of all states by the federal Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. Maryland's General Assembly enacted legislation this year delegating responsibility for the program to General Services and ordered the program to be in operation by Dec. 31 and fully implemented by July 1, 1992.
State Treasurer Lucille Maurer, a member of the Board of Public Works, said the reason Maryland's surcharge is higher than that in other states is that Maryland is instituting a full, statewide relay system rather than the partial systems established initially in some states.
Other states, including Pennsylvania, have expanded existing facilities or joined with other states to hold down costs. The cost to Pennsylvanians: 3 cents a month for residential phone customers, 6 cents a month for business customers.
Dr. Michael Moore, chairman of Governor Schaefer's advisory committee on the relay system, thanked the board in sign language.
"I, as a deaf person, can't call you, and you can't call me," he told the three board members. "With the relay program, we can. We'll have equal access. That's what it is all about."