October 31, 2005.
Mobile Register, Alabama.
MONTGOMERY -- A blind Cullman man contends that in order to pay for a program to assist the blind, the Alabama Public Service Commission has illegally siphoned hundreds of thousands of dollars from a separate program to help deaf people use the telephone.
"They have hustled the deaf program for $260,000," Tom Mills said in a recent telephone interview, "and I don't like it." Mills, who lives in north Alabama, has been writing to the commission about the situation for several months.
Mills said it would be more appropriate for the Alabama Department of Rehabilitation Services -- which runs programs for the disabled -- to oversee Newsline, a nationwide program that allows blind people to hear news articles read over the telephone.
The commission has temporarily halted Newsline's funding so staffers can review the situation, PSC correspondence shows.
Commission President Jim Sullivan maintains that the funding is proper, according to an Oct. 14 e-mail to Mills, who provided it to the Mobile Register.
"I am always concerned when affected citizens raise issues about programs supported by the commission," Sullivan wrote. "I accordingly intend to investigate the claims raised in your Oct. 10, 2005, e-mail more thoroughly."
Attempts by the Register to reach Sullivan were unsuccessful.
Newsline has been receiving money that by law can only be used to assist people who are deaf or hearing impaired, Mills said. In 1988, the Alabama Legislature created a dual-party relay system, which allows people who are deaf or hearing impaired to use the telephone to communicate. Alabama was the third state in the nation to offer this service to its citizens.
In its simplest form, a deaf person sends a text message to a specially trained operator, who then places a telephone call and reads the user's words to the recipient of the call. The operator types the other person's responses, which are transmitted to the deaf person.
The PSC collects a fee on traditional, or land-line, telephone service to pay for the relay system. The fee is 15 cents a month per line, which amounts to $1.80 a year. That fee generated $4.3 million in 2002, almost twice what the relay service cost to operate, according to the most recent figures available from the PSC.
In 2002, the Legislature passed a joint resolution asking the PSC to establish Newsline in the state on a pilot basis. The PSC, an agency that primarily regulates public utilities, responded by starting a five-year grant program through which Newsline received $60,000 the first year and $50,000 a year after that, Mills said. He does not dispute Newsline's value, but, he said, its funding conflicts with state law.
The law creating the service for deaf Alabamians states, "The Alabama Public Service Commission shall impose a surcharge on each access line of each customer of the local exchange companies operating in Alabama to fund a dual-party relay system whereby a deaf or hearing-impaired person may communicate with other such persons or with normal hearing persons via telephone."
The surcharge is supposed to be "used solely for the administration of this system," the law further states.
"The reason they got involved in Newsline is because there was a joint resolution from the Legislature," said PSC spokesman Clark Bruner. "They asked us to do it, and apparently there's nobody else really set up to do it."
The Department of Rehabilitation Services helps coordinate a similar program in some parts of the state where news articles are read over the radio, said agency spokesman Kim Wanous.
Judy McLean, chairwoman of the board overseeing the relay system and a top-ranking staff member at the PSC, said the Legislature has urged the agency to continue its support of Newsline. She said relay systems are now a federal mandate, and Alabama's law on the issue has never been amended.
"When the legislation was passed, it was bare bones legislation," McLean said.
She said a bill is being prepared that would allow money generated by the 15-cents-a-month fee to support other programs for disabled people. She noted that Alabama's Spanish-speaking population is growing, too, and a similar program with bilingual operators might be in order.
The Dual Party Relay System Trust had a balance of $9 million in 2002, and had spent $2 million that year on calls for deaf citizens, the latest available audit figures show.
"The Alabama Public Service Commission shall establish the amount to be imposed based on the amount of funding necessary to implement and maintain such system," the law states.
Bruner said the goal is for the relay system to eventually be financially self-sustaining. Investment income in 2002 totaled $146,000.
McLean encouraged anyone who might need the relay service to visit the commission's Web site,
She said the service can be particularly helpful to people who are not deaf but have become hard of hearing or those who have difficulty speaking because of illness.
Source URL: http://www.al.com/news/mobileregister/index.ssf?/base/news/1130753978257540.xml&coll=3.
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