"Intentionally under-collected;" Hamilton County sues AT&T for 911 fees
CHATTANOOGA (WRCB)-- C. W. 'Woody' Woodard can't tell you how much his phone company charges him to help cover costs of 911 service in Rhea County.
"I don't even read the bill!," he says. "It doesn't do me any good cause I can't do anything about it!"
Under federal law, your phone bill must spell out such charges. Hamilton County assesses $1 per month to wireless customers, $3 for a hard-line for business.
Therein lies why Hamilton County's Emergency Communications District is suing AT&T of Tennessee.
"They were able to do what they call bundling," ECD Executive Director John Stuermer explains. "Technology allows multiple phone lines over a single pair of wires."
Each multi-plex circuit carries up to 23 lines. AT&T is supposed to collect for each line, the lawsuit states, but the ECD can be certain only that AT&T is turning over one fee per circuit.
"We're not getting the funding for the lines as we should have," Stuermer says.
Hamilton County ECD is asking the U.S. District Court to fine AT&T $10,000 for each financial report it has filed since 2001. Those fees could add up to $1.33 million.
The ECD maintains that AT&T has "intentionally failed to fulfill its obligation to collect, report and remit charges necessary to finance District operations; "purposely depriving the District of "the revenue it needs to provide its critical, life-saving 911 emergency services."
"We can't get into specifics about the information we have," Stuermer says. "We know we have a good indication as to what's going on, and what we're doing is trying to validate that right now."
Coincidentally, Hamilton County ECD pays AT&T about $500,000 a year to provide enhanced 911 technology.
The lawsuit claims AT&T took shortcuts to win that contract, specifically gaining "an unfair and unlawful competitive advantage by under-collecting 911 charges by $1 ($2, rather than $3) per month, thereby underbidding other providers and unlawfully increasing its profits.
"I don't think it's right," Nancy Woodard says. "They ought to have to turn it over just like we do! Everybody's taxed, so why shouldn't they be.?"
Stuermer admits that Hamilton County has been counting on AT&T, and other service providers to "self-report."
"We've always counted on them to have good faith and give us proper information," he says.
Hamilton County's ECD filed a request with Chancery Court October 18, asking local phone service providers to turn over records for their business customers.
"Those should tell us whether we've been paid, what we should have been paid," Stuermer says.
Companies that haven't complied face a Chancery Court hearing November 28.
AT&T of Tennessee has 21 days to answer the federal summons.