Private contractor,
public grief

Mark Stack of Maui is an unhappy customer of the federal government and one of its private contractors.

It started with a January phone call to the National Passport Information Center (the contractor), at the 900-number printed on the application to renew his passport.

At a rate of 55 cents per minute, rather than hear a menu of options for information, he listened to a long spiel on children's passports, having nothing to do with his inquiry. He chose the option for operator assistance, though the recording indicated a charge of $1.50 a minute.

The next recording said the center was closed for the day.

He called back the next day, dialed 0 and complained to the call-taker about having to listen to information before hearing any menu options.

"Most of the calls we receive are about children's passports," he was told.

He asked for a supervisor and was told they would only come to the phone if he provided his name and birth date. He did, but the supervisor refused to take his call.

The call-taker assured Stack she could answer any of his questions.

He wanted a direct phone number for the center to lodge a complaint, a question the call-taker did not answer.

Then came a flurry of calls to the U.S. Department of State.

"It's amazing how much run-around you get when all you want to do is get them to change their recording so they stop ripping everybody off," he said.

"They think when you ask for the number of the office they think you're trying to avoid the charge. I just wanted to get whoever's in charge of putting the tape together to get them to correct it so they're not fleecing everybody," he said.

State Department Consular Affairs Bureau spokesman Stuart Patt told TheBuzz that the National Passport Information Center is the private-contractor solution to a government problem.

"It was impossible to have enough phone lines and personnel to handle calls," he said. "The job for our government employees is to issue the passports.

"There are many areas that the U.S. government asks that the users be the ones to pay for it. This is one example of that," he said.

Patt sympathized with Stack's frustration and provided names and addresses for Stack to contact in writing. Stack had already written a complaint letter to the Federal Communications Commission.

"We don't have a phone number that they can call," Patt said. "That would defeat the whole purpose."

TheBuzz was not given a phone number for the contractor either.

"They don't see themselves as being the ones to speak to the press," Patt said. "Complaints about the quality of service from the National Passport Information Center are rare."

However, complaints can be addressed to: Jonathan Hummel, Call Center Director, National Passport Information Center, 100 Main St., Suite 404, Dover, NH 03820-3835. A copy should also be sent to Joseph Tufo, the customer service manager, at the same address, Patt said.

Stack will be able to dispute the phone charges on his phone bill through his phone company, Patt said.

"We virtually always accept the customer's request and agree to a credit on their bill," he said.

The children's passport information is front and center on the recording, Patt said, because of the year-old legal requirement that both parents consent before a passport can be issued to a child.

"If your caller were to request a refund because of that message, his request would almost certainly be granted," said Patt.

As for Stack, he never did find out answers to his question about attaching photos to his passport application and how to pay for expedited processing. And he hasn't yet received his phone bill.

But, he said, he'll definitely dispute the charges.

Erika Engle is a reporter with the Star-Bulletin.
Call 529-4302, fax 529-4750 or write to Erika Engle,
Honolulu Star-Bulletin, 500 Ala Moana Blvd., No. 7-210,
Honolulu, HI 96813. She can also be reached

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