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The Truth, Mainly - 08/29/1994

Don't run U. S. like U S West

I've heard so often that we need to run this country like a business that I wonder if I've missed something in the founding documents. So I look.

Nothing there about the bottom line. Nothing about maximizing profit and minimizing risk. Nothing about paying CEOs more in a year than most of their employees make in a lifetime. Just that tiresome stuff about equality and justice and the general welfare. You know, things that aren't cost-effective.

So my eyes go glassy when Andy Abboud, talking up Jan Stoney's run for the Senate, says "if the country was run the way she ran a phone company, we would all be better off."

Especially when I find out the phone company he's talking about is U S West. If we run the country the way U S West is run, Canada and Mexico will have to hire more border guards. Boat people will be going to Cuba and Haiti.

I've had experience with U S West. Not in Lincoln, of course, where I've been spoiled rotten by LTT. Not even in Nebraska. My experience with U S West has been at Paradise Regained, the prettiest building site in the Colorado Rockies.

U S West is the fly in our vichyssoise out there, the flatulence in our mountain cathedral, the unspeakable in our crystal punchbowl.

After we built our snug little retreat, I wanted a telephone.

"I want a telephone," I said to my wife, who doesn't like telephones. "I want to call people in other climes and see how sweaty and cranky they are."

She said it would be like the first bite out of the apple in Eden.

So I went to a pay phone and told U S West we'd like a telephone please. Debbie laughed. (Only top executives get to have last names at U S West.) Debbie said it would be maybe three years before they'd get to our name on the waiting list, and because we're in the mountains, our phone would cost around, oh, $2000.

I should have quit right then, but I called U S West a week later and Stacy told me I could get a phone in six months for $1200. Two days later, I talked to Shane and it was up to 18 months and $1500. I kept calling back until Becky said I could get a phone for $300 in about a year. I grabbed it.

That's when the trouble started.

Every so often, but not regularly enough to be predictable, our phone dies. When I go to a pay phone to tell U S West about it, either the pay phone is dead or I get only busy signals. Sometimes our phone works again after a day or two. Sometimes after three or four.

Then we get the phone bill. I ask Jennifer in accounting about this long-distance charge to a town I've never heard of on a day we weren't home. "Hmm," she says. "Well, since you're on a party line, if you're sure you didn't make the call you don't have to pay for it."

When you make a long distance call on a party line, see, the only way U S West knows the number you're calling from is to ask you. If you give them my number instead of yours, they bill me. No lie.

The Truth, Mainly


Then I ask Jennifer about this $1.95 charge for an Optional Linebacker Maintenance Plan. She's very patient with me, but I still don't understand. I tell her I don't want to maintain an optional linebacker. She says I have to. If I have to maintain him, I ask, why is he optional? She says I've got her there. She also says I sound sweaty and cranky.

If it were just me I'd think that maybe some Colorado Buffalo fan working at U S West had found out I'm from Lincoln and was getting back at the Cornhuskers by billing me for maintenance of an optional linebacker in Boulder. But that's the way U S West treats all of Colorado.

Colorado can snicker at most of its calamities: the Broncos, Bill McCartney, the new Denver airport. But Colorado is not amused by U S West.

The state Public Utilities Commission uses a performance scale that runs from +100 for the best service down to -100 for the worst. U S West gets a -34.5.

"The last straw," a Denver Post editorial said this month, "came when the Public Utilities Commission's own receptionist had trouble reaching anyone at U S West to inquire about the situation. The company's customer-service lines were continually busy. . . .The company's failure to rectify such longstanding problems would laughable if it weren't so infuriating."

You'd think that level of indignation would mean there'd be hell to pay in the U S West boardroom, and they'd put generic toilet paper in executive restrooms.

But four of Colorado's 12 highest paid executives work for U S West. Their annual compensation runs from $1.4 to $2.6 million. They got raises of 7 to 17 percent last year. And they're asking the PUC for permission to bump up rates.

Can you dial W-R-E-T-C-H-E-D E-X-C-E-S-S?

Mr. Abboud may exaggerate when he says Jan Stoney "ran" U S West. I hope so. I'm willing to presume she's innocent of that ugly charge. But when he says we'd all be better off if the country were run like U S West, it sounds like an incredibly bad connection. It's best to pretend we don't hear. Let's just hang up.


Satterfield is a college professor and writes as a means of discovery.


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