Hennepin County, Minn., Goes Old-School with Pay Phone as Newest Government Service

How did a lonely pay phone — a relic of a much earlier age — become the county's most recent customer service offering?

by David Chanen, Star Tribune (Minneapolis) / August 21, 2017
Shutterstock

(TNS) -- Hennepin County is frequently cited as a government leader in new technology, especially when it comes to assisting people who visit its downtown Minneapolis courthouse and Government Center.

So how then did a lonely pay phone — a relic of a much earlier age — become the county's most recent customer service offering?

"We want to help the public who may not have access to a cellphone," said Christine Mlinarchik, a facility operations manager for the county. "It was a no-brainer for us."

Until about two years ago, there were three pay phones in the Government Center. But they were taken out after two entrances were remodeled and never replaced.

Since then, workers at the Government Center's central information desk have had to tell a significant number of inquiring people daily that the pay phones were gone. "Oftentimes they need to call for a ride," said Joan Turpin, who has worked at the information desk for 10 years.

That led to gentle but persistent nudging by county staffers for a landline, which finally resulted in installation of the pay phone this month.

"We didn't think the phones were coming back," Turpin said. "There is really more of a need than people think."

It's not clear how many pay phones remain in downtown Minneapolis, but there can't be many. The city's 311 information line didn't have any listings for pay phones.

And many people will probably walk right by it and not know quite what to make of it.

By 2011, more than 95 percent of Americans owned a cellphone, according to a survey by Pew Research Center. By then, many cities already had removed pay phones because they were a lightning rod for criminal activity.

In recent years, AT&T and Verizon stopping making pay phones when they no longer turned a profit.

So Hennepin County's decision to add one was indeed unusual. The county was charged only $95 to install it and will pay about $40 a month for service. Phone usage will pay the bills.

The phone is located on the Government Center's A level, on the ground floor below the main service level; it may not be an accident that it's next to a free blood pressure monitor. It's in an area well-traveled by Sheriff's Office employees, building security workers and people headed to the nearby cafe or City Hall.

The phone accepts credit cards, and local calls cost 50 cents. The phone can place collect calls.

It isn't only for people who don't have a cellphone. While the Government Center does have a charging station for cellphones, people often don't have their cords with them and would find a pay phone useful.

Sometimes a security guard or deputy would lend their cellphone to a person in need, so long as the person didn't swear or get angry when they learned the pay phones no longer existed, Turpin said.

It didn't take long for the new pay phone to get some business. One of the first people who came to Turpin's information desk after the phone was installed asked where one was located.

She cheerfully pointed to the nearby stairway.

©2017 the Star Tribune (Minneapolis) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.