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City Tab for Cell Phones Increases

June 22, 2003|Patrick McGreevy | Times Staff Writer

To rein in the city's rapidly rising bill for cell phone service, the Los Angeles City Council made changes in 1996 aimed at protecting taxpayers against extravagant or unnecessary charges and controlling the number of cell phones in the hands of city workers.

Today, some top officials are still tallying monthly bills of $500 to $840, and the number of employees with city cell phones has more than tripled since 1996, to 4,105 users. The city's cell phone bill reached $1.5 million in 2002, an increase of 72% since the reforms were implemented.

As the technology has advanced and costs have fallen, cell phones have become an increasingly popular workplace tool. Many city officials and experts say it makes sense for government to join the trend and contend that cell phones have improved local government by making public servants more accessible to residents.

"This is a new world," said Councilman Dennis Zine, who rang up a $796 bill in December. "The technology provides instant access. People can call me. I can call people right back, even when I'm not in the office."

But lax oversight and a failure to fully take advantage of the best rate plans have limited the city's ability to control costs, interviews and a review of city records show. Many of the same issues the council tackled in 1996 remain problems today.

Mayor James K. Hahn is concerned enough by the increase in cell phone costs that he has asked the Information Technology Agency to review the city's policies and recommend possible additional reforms, said Deputy Mayor Doane Liu.

"He knows that the expenses have increased," Liu said. "What he'd like to do is find out if there is a practical explanation for it: Are other cities experiencing the same trend? Has there been a corresponding increase in productivity?"

A review of cell phone records for 2001 and 2002 show that some officials rely more than others on their city-issued cell phones.

Zine averaged $328 a month last year, the highest among the council's 15 members. He was followed by Councilman Nate Holden, with an average of $307 a month, Nick Pacheco at $275 and Alex Padilla at $230. Mark Ridley-Thomas, who left the council in December to join the state Assembly, averaged $452 a month in 2001. His charges included one monthly bill of $840.

Their bills contrast with those of Councilwomen Ruth Galanter and Cindy Miscikowski, who averaged $37 and $42 a month, respectively, last year. Among top nonelected city officials, Public Works Board member Adriana Rubalcava ranked as the biggest cell phone user, with an average monthly bill last year of $419. Mayor Hahn's cell phone bills averaged a relatively low $120 a month in 2002.

"Cell phone use is expensive and this is the people's money, so I try not to use the cell phone for calls that can wait for my return to the office," Galanter said.

The City Council reviewed cell phone use in 1996 after an investigation by The Times found that costs had increased 60% in the prior fiscal year, and that Los Angeles spent a larger amount of public funds on cell phones than other major cities.

A new comparison found that Los Angeles still has more cell phones per employee than some other large municipalities. In 1996, 4% of Los Angeles city employees had city-issued cell phones. Now 12% have them.

In comparison, 5.8% of Chicago city employees get cell phones as part of their jobs, while, in Philadelphia, 6% of city employees have cell phones.

The Times investigation in 1996 found evidence of poor oversight, including an inability to account for all city phones and who was using them. Officials were not seeing their bills before they were paid, and the city was not getting the best rates offered by wireless companies.

To address those concerns, the City Council adopted 11 changes recommended by a task force appointed to examine the issue. The guiding principle of the reform package was to decentralize responsibility for overseeing city cell phones while also negotiating the best deal for the city. The council required the city to seek new competitive bids for service plans to see if it could get better rates. There is evidence, however, that the city has not been getting the lowest available rates, even recently.

For years, the city joined a master contract for the state that provided a 9% government discount on AT&T Wireless service. But in July, a separate government acquisition consortium called the Western States Contracting Alliance negotiated a plan with AT&T Wireless that offers a 15% discount.

Los Angeles city officials did not switch over to that contract until this April, missing 10 months of deeper discounts, officials said. The new plan also eliminates a 1.21% administrative fee that the city had been charged by the state for new equipment purchases.

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