It has been called a comedy of errors, but there's nary a U.S. West customer in Payson who's laughing -- including Roxie Sturgis, who says her life has been "completely messed up" by an ongoing U.S. West drop box brouhaha.
The problems started in March, when a U.S. West payment drop box was installed at Town Hall to make payments more convenient for Payson telephone customers.
On paper, it seemed like a great idea for the phone company's customers. But in reality, it's been one glitch after another.
For reasons unknown, even to local U.S. West manager Bruce Ledbetter, pickup service for the boxes was abruptly canceled with no provision for another pickup service. Eventually, a U.S. West employee in Payson was told to pick up the growing mound of uncollected payments and mail them in. He did, but to a post office box U.S. West had closed. As a result, the already-delinquent bills went to a dead letter office.
In the interim, Sturgis had dutifully turned over her phone bill payment to The Wash Tub laundry, which was then an official U.S. West payment site through which the drop-box payments were supposed to be processed.
Ledbetter said he doesn't know why the payments weren't processed.
The contract between U.S. West and The Wash Tub was canceled around the time drop box problems started, he says, but he declined to elaborate.
Racking up charges
No matter the explanation, Roxie Sturgis had to deal with a lost check, a $15 stop-check fee which she says U.S. West refused to reimburse, and two phone bills in November, complete with $10 in late-payment charges.
"I didn't get a written notice," she says, "just a so-called courtesy call from U.S. West telling me that they were going to cut off my service within one week if I didn't pay them ... again.
"I've always paid my phone bill, just bam, bam, bam. The telephone is very important to me and my husband's food service business, and we really can't do without it."
While her billing problems have been ironed out, there are two small details left undone, Sturgis says.
"I'm still stuck with the stop-check fee. And they never gave me an apology. Nothing. I guess when you're a monopoly like U.S. West, you don't need to apologize."
So, when U.S. West wouldn't listen, Sturgis phoned Jon Poston.
"This has been a real comedy of errors," says Poston, consumer coordinator for Arizonans for Competition in Telephone Service. "In any other business, mistakes like these would have resulted in an immediate apology to customers, and an immediate directive by the company to make sure it didn't happen again. Instead, U.S. West only made the situation worse."
For 13 years, from 1984 to 1997, Poston was public information officer for the Arizona Corporation Commission. He left that job for his current position because, he says, "I felt it was necessary to take on U.S. West and their poor customer practices, their history of neglecting the people who pay the freight."
Poston admits up front that his monopoly-busting organization, headquartered in Carefree, is funded by many of the companies -- such as Cox Cable and MCI -- that want to compete with U.S. West in the state's local service market. But if ACTS didn't exist, Sturgis, who tried and failed to get help from both U.S. West and the ACC, says she and other Payson residents would have nowhere else to take their gripes.
Karen Mitchell called Poston when U.S. West had driven her to "wit's end" as she tried and failed over a period of several months to get an additional phone line installed in her Gisela home.
"We still don't have it," she says. "For a while we were getting billed as if we did have it. We finally worked that out, and our account was credited. But after telling us at first that there would be no problem in installing the line, they changed their tune and suddenly said that, because we live in a rural area, they were going to charge us more. They want to punish us for living in a rural area."
Payson's Ron Bingamon is another local who's still battling with U.S. West over the three phone bill payments -- his own, his mother-in-law's and his church's -- he dropped in the company's box at Town Hall.
His checks remain uncashed, but they have yet to be returned to him. He's been charged late fees and has received bills with past-due balances. He's been considering stopping payment on his checks, but has balked because it would cost him $45.
Poston says he hears dozens of stories like these every workday. He heard them while employed by the corporation commission, too.
He says his crusade is "the direct result of seeing, for years at the commission, customers calling up who were at the mercy of U.S. West and getting zero satisfaction. Doubling the frustration was the commission itself; the process for dealing with these complaints was and remains inadequate.
Rarely was any action taken."
The primary problems are threefold, Poston says.
First, "the corporation commission is overly friendly with U.S. West." Second, "This is not your friendly neighborhood phone company. The demand for volume of performance by employees is far greater than the demand for quality of performance."
And third is the problem inherent with all monopolies.
"To make it simple, let's say you have only one place in town where you can buy a loaf of bread, and today's batch comes out lumpy," he says. "There won't be much concern by the employees, because they know you can't buy bread anywhere else. That's the kind of behavior you get from a monopoly."
Reconnecting with customers
Ledbetter disagrees with Poston on every point.
He also disagrees with Sturgis' claim that U.S. West offered her no apology.
"During a town council forum held earlier this month, I explained everything and apologized publically," he says. "I believed my apology would be printed in the Roundup, and everyone who'd had a problem would see it."
In retrospect, Ledbetter says, that wasn't enough.
"We're now preparing an insert to be included in the next bill."
In the meantime, Ledbetter says, he's been trying to catch up with everyone who's had a problem.
"We're negotiating charges and crediting their accounts," he says. "If they call our 1-800 number, we will credit any customer who has a (drop box) problem."
And how about those stop-check charges?
"We'll reimburse those, too," he says.
That's good news for customers like Ron Bingamon.
"That would make me very happy," he says. "Well, it would make me less disgusted with U.S. West."
Who to call
U.S. West customers who lost payments by using the Town Hall drop box can file a complaint with the Arizona Corporation Commission. The toll-free number is 1-800-222-7000.
To reach the Arizona for Competition in Telephone Service, which urges the corporation commission to set rates and enact policies that encourage telephone competition, call (480) 473-3321, or go on-line to www.azacts.com.
Local U.S. West manager Bruce Ledbetter says calls relating to missing drop box payments and any subsequent charges should be directed to 1-800-573-1311.