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Petitioner makes connections on valley-wide phone rate

ROGUE RIVER - Averaging 100 signatures a day, Shayne Maxwell has gathered more than 3,000 from local residents in support of an extended calling area from Rogue River to Medford.

She needs just 1,263 verified signatures to petition the Public Utilities Commission to reduce Rogue River calling rates to Gold Hill, Central Point and Medford, which now average 9 cents a minute or more in long-distance charges.

Several attempts over the last dozen years to make the valley one local calling area have fallen short, but Maxwell says she's determined to succeed and has enlisted the help of local agencies and politicians.

"We need our public officials to get involved," she said. "We are over 200,000 strong in the Rogue Valley and it's time we get a voice. Keeping us separated, by the cost of communication, keeps us ineffective as a community of Southern Oregonians."

A spokesman for U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Hood River, said the congressman will write a letter to the Federal Communications Commission to obtain statistics on the number of cell phone users in the area. The statistics, unavailable to Maxwell, may demonstrate to the PUC the lengths to which local residents have gone to avoid long-distance charges.

Jackson County Commissioner Ric Holt also is supportive of Maxwell's efforts.

"I can call my son in Kings Point, Long Island, and it costs me less than calling someone in Central Point," said Holt. "This is just wrong."

Maxwell said state Rep. Cherryl Walker, R-Murphy, has agreed to appear in support of extended area service at the PUC public hearing on the issue, which will be scheduled once the petition is submitted and verified.

Providing letters of support are the Rogue River City Council and the Senior Advisory Council for the Rogue Valley Council of Governments.

Maxwell's petition also is supported by John Irwin, chairman of the Oregon Telecommunications Coordination Council, and the board of the Southern Oregon Telecommunications and Technology Council.

Maxwell said a prime example of the burden the current system places on the community is the Rogue River School District.

The district's schools share two Medford lines. One line runs between the middle school and Rogue River Elementary and the other between the high school and the district offices.

Retired teacher Carol Cook, who taught 30 years in the district, says the lack of reasonable rates has caused some serious problems for teachers, students and parents, many of whom work outside the area.

Cook said it was common for staff to run between schools to ask whoever was on the Medford line to hang up because there was an emergency need for the line.

"Sometimes I had to wait up to 20 minutes for the line," said Cook. "That was time I could have been grading papers or working on class assignments. It's a real problem."

Superintendent Charles Hellman said maintaining the two Medford lines and the local long-distance calls from all sites cost the district $4,618 annually.

"Getting a better rate would be a great advantage to the district," said Hellman. "I'm hoping the effort will be successful."

Local businesses also feel the burden. According to Maxwell, there are more than 8,500 people in the 582 prefix, many of whom have Medford physicians. Johney Myers, owner of Ben Franklin Pharmacy in Rogue River, says he pays more than $1,200 a year in phone charges to Medford doctors and pharmacies on behalf of his clients.

As grueling as the "24/7 volunteer job" has become, Maxwell said it also has been rewarding. She said people from Jacksonville, Applegate, Eagle Point, Sams Valley and White City have been asking for her help in working out similar extended-area-service difficulties. Maxwell says there does not seem to be an area of the valley that is not effected by the current structure.

"This may be the first door that opens the floodgates," said Maxwell. "The more I research this, the more I discover that the Rogue Valley needs to be one calling district from Grants Pass to Ashland. Making every small town in Southern Oregon battle it out with petitions and hearings is ridiculous, not to mention costly."

Volunteers interested in compiling data cross-referencing phone numbers and researching pertinent information can reach Maxwell at (541) 582-2020.

Sanne Specht is a free-lance writer living in Rogue River. Reach her at.