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Phone pact for deaf to cost jobs
Sprint wins bid over local firm that employs 65

The State Purchasing Division says money savings triumphed over local jobs in awarding a contract to provide telephone service to Utah's deaf and hearing-impaired.

The state will be $2 million richer in accepting the bid by Sprint Corp. But 65 local workers will be out of work."This will put us out of business. We won't have a job. It will close us down," said Larry Laskowski, director of the Utah Relay Service.

He said many of the operators who will lose their jobs "are single mothers who are depending on this work to make a living to support their children."

The Utah Association of the Deaf has operated the service for 11 years. But when the contract came up for bid recently, the cost of the association's proposal was 30 percent higher than a competing bid from Sprint, an international telecommunications giant based in Westwood, Kan.

Sprint won the contract, and -- unless an appeal by the association is successful -- in the next few months Utah's deaf community will be served by operators at one of Sprint's six out-of-state regional centers.

Laskowski, who lost much of his hearing at age 4 when he had a high fever, says the whole bidding process has left a bitter taste in his mouth.

He says the Utah Public Service Commission, which collects an 18-cent fee paid by each telephone user and then contracts with a relay service such as that offered by the Utah Association for the Deaf, unfairly weighted the financial aspects of the contract against the service location in the bidding.

Not true, said Doug Richens, director of the state Purchasing Division.

In each bidding process, there are always winners and losers, Richens said. Each year, the purchasing division "procures" $400 million in supplies, equipment, services and construction.

"Generally speaking, when we award one (contract) to one company, the other company is not happy," Richens said. "This was a unique situation because it was their total business."

Last week, the Association for the Deaf held a protest on the steps of the Utah State Capitol to oppose the division's actions.

In 1987, the association went to the Legislature and lobbied to establish the relay service. The association has successfully operated the service for more than a decade.

"And now to think that State Purchasing is going to give this service to another out of state (company) means we will be losing millions of dollars that should be kept in Utah," said an association statement announcing the protest.

The association is appealing the decision to the Utah Procurement Appeal Board.

There are about 17,000 members of the deaf community in Utah and another 250,000 people with hearing impairments who use the service. Some people with speech impediments also use the relay service, which gets an average 1,300 calls per day, Laskowski said.

Here's how it works: Callers use the relay service operator to transcribe vocal conversations into written communication. A deaf or hearing-impaired person buys a small telecommunication machine or computer that allows them to read the message typed in by the relay service operator.

Utah doesn't have a procurement policy to award contracts to local businesses, Richens said, but the committee that evaluated the bids did consider that local operators would know the state's geography and culture.

The evaluation committee found the service would be equal and improved under either bid.

But Richens said the committee took a close look at costs.