Crystal Lake's finance director explains story behind the city's payphone

It’s got a coin slot. It has a cord. Is it from this world?

Past the front doors of Crystal Lake City Hall, 100 W, Woodstock St., is device not often seen anymore: a payphone.
Past the front doors of Crystal Lake City Hall, 100 W, Woodstock St., is device not often seen anymore: a payphone.

It’s no secret that pay phones may someday be part of the distant past.

But for the city of Crystal Lake, the device has been an unexpected moneymaker in a nondescript corner of City Hall.

More than a decade ago, city officials remodeled the building at 100 W. Woodstock St. The pay phone, in a corner across from the police department, had already been installed, but the city decided to buy the device and integrate it into its phone system.

“We own it,” said George Koczwara, the Crystal Lake’s director of finance. “There is no cost to the city to keep the pay phone.”

That means whatever coins a caller pumps into the machine is a little extra cash for the city.

A phone call on the pay phone costs a quarter for three minutes.

“Looking at our collection history, we average about $4 per month,” Koczwara said.

A look at Federal Communications Commission data revealed that the pay phone inside Crystal Lake city hall is one of fewer than 100,000 pay phones left in the United States – a dramatic drop from the 2.1 million planted between the coasts in 1999.

In 2008, that number fell to 700,000, according to the FCC.

And by 2016? 99,832.

In 2008, there were about 23,000 pay phones in Illinois. But over the next eight years, the number dropped to 3,400.

California remains the country’s pay phone champion. As of 2016, the most populous state in the U.S. contained about 17,000 pay phones – an 82 percent decline from the 96,382 in 2008.

And the state with the fewest? As of 2016, North Dakota had 113 pay phones.

One thing to notice about Crystal Lake’s city hall pay phone is how shiny and clean it is.

A walk past outdoor pay phones often comes with sloppy graffiti, weather damage and stains of unknown origin that make callers feel like they need a squirt of Purell – or a shower – after placing a call.

“It’s amazing what happens when they’re outside,” Koczwara said, adding that the city’s pay phone is in a climate-controlled part of the building.

To Koczwara, pay phones aren’t anything to get nostalgic about. A guy from the pay phone generation, he looks at a pay phone and sees a relic from a time long ago that people still use now and again.

“Surprisingly,” Koczwara said, “people do use it periodically.”

When Koczwara gets to work in the morning, the pay phone blends into the scenery. There’s no novelty to it – but he can see why pay phones in 2019 might grab someone’s attention.

“I bet you the kids with their smartphones would notice it,” he said.

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