Cell phones used by city workers continue to drain the budget despite efforts to cut down the monthly bills.
Amid a $522.2 million budget deficit for The City and county next fiscal year, employees are racking up tabs that run into the hundreds of dollars each month. Mayor Gavin Newsom, who has made cracking down on cell phone usage one of his priorities, admits he is “struggling” with the challenge of curbing the costs.
“I’ve been frustrated,” Newsom said during a September meeting with The Examiner editorial board. “Every time I cut them in one department, they start creeping back up in another department. It’s very hard. It should be easier. I just confess I am struggling with it.”
Cell phone costs have increased since Newsom took office in 2004, nearly doubling to a high of $3.26 million in fiscal year 2007-08. The costs were cut down in the next fiscal year, but Newsom has still issued a mayoral directive to have cell phone costs sliced in half.
July 1 started the current fiscal year, and cell phone bills went as high as $728.46 for one worker; six others had bills of about $300 and 17 had bills between $200 and $300, according to Department of Technology data of phones assigned to specific employees.
In order to halve the bills in the future, Newsom said the Department of Technology has improved its tracking of cell phone usage citywide.
The department has increased efforts of identifying high-minute users, recommending new rate plans or reporting suspected personal use of the phones, according to a report Newsom released in September about the progress of his initiatives.
Ron Vinson, director of media for the Department of Technology, said the department’s efforts — a major reassessment of city workers’ service plans — could have cell phone costs down by as much as 35 percent for July through December, compared to the same time last fiscal year.
But tracking down who is using the phones and how much is not straightforward.
Some bills are broken down not by specific user, but rather by a group plan that can be traced to a city department. In other cases, it appears charges are attributed to one worker when the devices are being used by others.
The highest monthly bill of the named employees in July is for a city worker with the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission. The reason it’s that high, according to PUC spokesman Tony Winnicker, is it includes the charges of a master contract for emergency pager services used by other workers. He said the PUC is committed to change the reporting to accurately reflect usage per employee, which would increase accountability.
Some times it’s the cell phone provider who makes mistakes. City Administrator Ed Lee said he was socked with two monthly bills of nearly $300, but the mistake was soon caught. Apparently the provider mistakenly switched his plan and began charging him for every call. He received a credit and he is back to paying about $100 a month.
Despite several high monthly charges during the first two months of the fiscal year, Vinson said, “If you look at the whole spectrum, we are doing much, much better.”
Running up the bills
City cell phone costs are nearly $1 million more than they were in fiscal year 2004-05, though the total price tag this year is down from last year.
Fiscal year Total bills
* Estimate as of January 2009
Source: Department of Technology
Monthly price tag
Cell phone bills for The City over two months break down service spending:
Month Total bills
Source: Department of Technology
Calls for information, roaming among extra charges
From city workers using the pricey 411 information line to mounting additional charges for exceeding allowable minutes or text messages, cell phones continue to waste taxpayer dollars.
In July alone, tens of thousands of cell phones in use by city workers were flagged for charging a total of $964.81 in 411 directory assistance charges. Those bills occurred despite the fact there are two free directory assistance services the workers could use instead, according to information provided by the Department of Technology at the request of The Examiner.
At that rate, The City would pay out $11,126.64 for the year.
“You cannot block 411 calling, so it is important to let your employees know that these [free] services are available,” a department e-mail said.
In some cases, city workers simply exceed the number of allowable minutes on a cell phone and then racked up steep charges that kicked in under the service contracts. One city worker ran up charges of $298 for their cell phone one month, followed by a bill of $257 the next month by “using way over 450 minutes each billing period.” The Department of Technology advised a change to a plan that allows 1,350 minutes on the phone.
In addition to increased charges for exceeding minutes, some city workers were hit with charges for other types of use. One city worker managed to accumulate $571.90 in roaming charges.
There are also charges for monthly service on cell phones that no one has used for at least three months, according to August e-mails sent to several city departments from the Department of Technology.
— Joshua Sabatini