What Price Safety?

Month in and month out for thirteen years, Dade County's 1.2 million telephone customers have shelled out eleven cents to support a conundrum called Manhole Ordinance #83-3. The mysterious charge shows up on every bill for every residential and commercial phone line, lumped on the same page with federal, state, and local taxes. But it isn't a tax.

"It's, uh, for the manholes, right? When they go down in them?" says Fernando Menoyo, a Coral Gables investor and rental property manager. "Um, I guess I don't know."

Even those in the curiosity business confess their cluelessness.
"No idea," says Jack King, editor of the Coconut Grover, a monthly newspaper. "My wife's always asking me the same question. It beats the heck out of me, but I sure am sick of paying that eleven cents every month."

Sometimes it's more like ten cents, or twelve. The money, which totaled $1.67 million last year, floats out of the pockets of BellSouth clients to pay an elite force of walkie-talkie toting manhole cops, private guards from Burns International Security Services who surveil open manholes 50 to 70 times per day, mostly in downtown Miami. They appear as if by magic any time a BellSouth employee goes down below to fix the wires, their official task to keep dogs and other objects from falling down the open manholes.

They are also responsible, by law, for giving first aid and summoning help if an emergency arises. Mostly they hang out, vigilant for passersby who may be tempted to throw soda bottles or chicken bones where they shouldn't.

The uniformed rent-a-cops are paid out of a special BellSouth escrow fund fed by phone bills and funneled through an office in Atlanta. The monthly charge often fluctuates because of rain: Wetter months mean more phone repairs, which mean more manhole patrols.

"It's the cost of the actual employment of security guards, plus ten percent for administrative expenses," says BellSouth spokesman Spero Canton. "We don't make any profit from it." Canton says the guards get $5.00 to $5.50 per hour (the security company also gets a fee), and notes that BellSouth uses off-duty police officers in addition to the private guards as the need arises.

The phone company likes the enhanced security, even though it fought the idea when it was first proposed. In 1983 union leaders from Local 359 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers appeared at a county commission meeting demanding tougher safety standards for utility workers laboring around and under open manholes. By a vote of 7-2, they got their ordinance, one that's unique in the Southeast. (Atlanta city officials repealed a similar law in 1980 after trying it for four years and deciding it was expensive, ineffectual, and silly.)

Cynics in Dade said the Brotherhood was less concerned with safety than with stacking repair crews with plenty of union members. (A phone company safety supervisor told commissioners there had been 61 manhole-related injuries during a recent three-year period, none serious.) The ordinance requires that a second "person" be present aboveground any time repairs are conducted below. The phone company seized on the vagueness of this wording and started using off-duty cops and private security guards instead of its own more highly trained -- and more highly paid -- technicians.

"We had a choice there of using one of our people, who's worth a whole lot more than five dollars per hour, or contracting it out," Canton explains. "It was more efficient."

Ironically, Burns International Security is a nonunion shop.
In mid-1983, after lobbying Florida's Public Service Commission, Southern Bell won the right to pass on the cost of the manhole cops directly to its customers. (The company recently changed its name to BellSouth.) In the "Other Charges and Credits" category, phone bills began carrying a new line-item: Cost of Dade County manhole ordinance #83-3."

Other utilities pick up the cost of the manhole ordinance themselves. Florida Power & Light, for example, doesn't use one-man repair crews, so it simply employs its own personnel as manhole monitors when necessary.

Today Manhole Ordinance #83-3 slumbers in the county code books between antipornography regulations and a rule prohibiting citizens from painting their cars to look like police vehicles.

"It's true that the populace doesn't generally know what it is," says a weary-sounding Bill Palmer, a BellSouth contracts specialist who helps administer the swag. "We have, over a period of years, answered the question many times."

In a random survey of twenty telephone customers, twelve said they were aware of the monthly manhole charge, but only one could accurately explain where the money goes.

"I know exactly what it's for, and I think it's a bunch of crap," says Jose Aviles, a Miami plumber. "They got a lot of little knickknack charges like that. I think the phone company is protecting itself against liability in case someone trips over their equipment or falls down the hole. And we're paying for it."

Ben Blair, general manager for Burns International Security, says the manhole patrol requires a special breed of hombre. "It attracts specific sorts of security officers," he notes. "Retirees, those who like the outdoors, guys who only want to work during the day, real salt-of-the earth types. There's a lot of exposure to the elements. They get rained on a lot.


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