What happens when you don't pay your phone bill? The phone company cuts off your service, of course. But what happens when the phone company won't pay its bills?

That's the question looming over City Hall as we head into month 12 of the Great Qwest Tax Revolt. Qwest, the cuddly 14-state telecommunications behemoth, is still refusing to settle an outstanding tax bill with the City of Portland--a bill for $4.8 million and counting.

For many years, Qwest forked over a "franchise fee" of roughly $6 million a year, or 7 percent of its gross revenues, in return for the right to string its telephone poles along city streets and run its cable under our pavement.

But last May, based on its interpretation of a federal court decision in Washington state, Qwest decided that the Telecommunications Act of 1996 made franchise fees illegal--and abruptly stopped paying them.

"If we're wrong, we'll pay the money," Qwest vice president Judy Peppler said at the time.

For Portland, Qwest's sudden attack of anti-tax fever could not have come at a worse time. While Qwest mobilized an elite squad of lawyers to argue its case in court, the recession pushed the City of Portland into a budget freefall. The $4.8 million Qwest owes could save one fire station and 30 cops from the budget-cutting machete.

"If we don't have Qwest's money, I can't fill those 30 positions," says Mayor Vera Katz, who scribbles, "PAY THE FRANCHISE FEE!" on every bill she mails to the phone company. "I will try," she continues, "but I don't know if we can do it."

Last month, U.S. Magistrate Judge John Jelderks threw Qwest's case out of court, concluding franchise fees were "fair and reasonable compensation" for the city's right of way. Qwest has vowed to appeal.

Qwest spokeswoman Mary Healy insists that Qwest will make payments "as soon as we can work out arrangements," but concedes that negotiations over these "arrangements" have broken down in the past.

Enough already. What's sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. WW is encouraging readers to withhold the portion of their Qwest bill that represents the unpaid franchise fee--until Qwest finally pays the city.

It's easy. Your telephone bill already itemizes the franchise fee, which comes to about 35 cents for a typical household. All you have to do is withhold that 35 cents from your bill each month, and send Qwest a polite explanation (you can even print out our handy form).

Keep the savings in your piggy bank--or place it in escrow--until the glorious day when Qwest finally digs deep and coughs up some hard, cold cash to our dear city. Then send Qwest the accumulated fee in your next payment.

Alternatively, if Lucifer's domain should happen to experience an unusual bout of frost and Qwest wins its appeal, keep the cash. After all, if Qwest won't pay, why should you?

There is a small risk to this small protest. Technically, Qwest can disconnect service on any account that is not fully paid up. According to WW's reporting, however, this seldom occurs when the amount in arrears is less than $10. For a typical household, that's two years' worth of franchise fees.

here for a printable copy of the form. or here to download a higher resolution word document.