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L.A. County rings up $1.5 million for unused phones

Cost-cutting audit finds thousands of abandoned lines.

June 19, 2009|Garrett Therolf

Los Angeles County government has more than 8,000 phones that never ring. The annual cost to taxpayers? At least $1.5 million and climbing.

Officials worry that some lines may have never served a county purpose. One was registered to a now-defunct ticket brokerage in Hollywood called Theatix. For 14 years, the bill for the line -- currently $38 a month -- has been paid by taxpayers.

Don Ashton, a spokesman for the supervisors' executive office, said he could not explain who approved the line or who signed off on the invoices, paid out of a Board of Supervisors account, for all these years.

"We haven't been able to find that out," he said.

The discovery of so many abandoned lines raises serious questions about oversight, particularly when county officials have asked everyone to tighten their belts.

"This is government at its worst," Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said. "We have a problem, no question about it. But we are going to move quickly to fix it."

The countywide review began earlier this year when William T Fujioka, the county's chief executive, was notified that no one ever shut down 329 phone lines at Martin Luther King Jr.-Harbor Hospital when it was downgraded to an outpatient clinic in August 2007.

"After the hospital closed, there just wasn't a clear sense of what we were going to do with the facility so no one turned off the lines," said Michael Wilson, spokesman for the Department of Health Services. Officials plan to reopen the Willowbrook facility, but not for at least three more years.

After learning that there were still open phone lines at the hospital, Fujioka and Internal Services Department Director Tom Tindall ordered a countywide review.

Auditors, who are only halfway through their search, say the number of abandoned phone lines may top 16,000, totaling $3 million a year in phone bills.

The hunt began with workers using invoices to identify 38,000 phone lines that had no recent toll calls. Then they checked with county managers to see if anyone was using the lines.

In many cases, they found the lines served legitimate uses: security systems, elevator phones or lines for workers who made only local calls. But in thousands of other cases, no one claimed the lines and they were cut off.

Tindall said that although some departments had occasionally looked for unused lines over the years, "no one remembers the last time we did a countywide search."

Despite the discovery of long-standing problems, some supervisors praised the audit.

"During these difficult economic times, we need to look for every possible way to save every dollar we can," said David Sommers, spokesman for Supervisor Don Knabe.

Still, county supervisors have a long way to go to make up for lost tax revenue and looming cuts from Sacramento.

County department heads have already been asked to draft proposals to shave as much as 13% of their expenses from the proposed $22.8-billion budget.

"Of course, whenever there is any waste in the county it is disturbing," said Tony Bell, spokesman for county Supervisor Mike Antonovich.

Bell called the audit and the savings from shutting down the lines "good news" as the supervisors enter budget deliberations.


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