Facility to relay phone calls for deaf could bring 200 new jobs to city


ANNAPOLIS -- State officials yesterday promised Baltimore a 150- to 200-job boost to the economy in the form of a new facility to relay telephone calls to and from people with hearing disabilities.

John White, assistant secretary of the state Department of General Services, which is administering the telephone relay system, also said at a House committee yesterday that he expects the controversial monthlysurcharge to be reduced after the system is in operation.

The 45-cent surcharge to every telephone user likely will be reduced to 31 cents a month at the end of the year, the department has said. Yesterday, Mr. White said, "I feel pretty confident that we'll be able to lower the surcharge significantly lower than the 31 cents," but not until at least a year or 18 months after it is up and running.

Despite the promise of a lower surcharge, some members of the House Constitutional and Administrative Law Committee lambasted Mr. White for his department's decision to solicit bids only for a Baltimore facility.

The facility is required by the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, which President Bush signed into law this summer. The law requires all states to provide telephone service for the deaf and hearing impaired by the beginning of next year. Three weeks ago, the state Board of Public Works awarded a three-year $32.5 million contract to build the facility to Sprint Systems of Shawnee Mission, Kan.

Mr. White said the 150 to 200 jobs anticipated at the Baltimore facility could multiply if Maryland is able to convince West Virginia, the District of Columbia and others to "piggyback" onto Maryland's relay system. "We expect Maryland to be a hub state for this new growth industry," he said.

But lawmakers from Montgomery County chastised the department for instructing Sprint and the other bidders to submit a proposal only for Baltimore. Delegate Leon G. Billings,

D-Montgomery, questioned the legal authority for restricting a bid to one locality. And Delegate Carol S. Petzold, also a Montgomery Democrat, suggested that the Baltimore-only clause may have raised the cost of the system.

Mr. White defended the decision by pointing out that his department, which must oversee the facility, is in Baltimore and that the city has both the educational resources to train operators in American Sign Language and the infrastructure for Sprint to build a telephone relay facility.

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