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Audit finds L.A.'s cellphone tab needlessly high

The city controller says as much as $1 million was wasted last year in a variety of ways and that it is overpaying carriers because city departments fail to take advantage of cheaper rates and plans.

May 12, 2011|By Kate Linthicum, Los Angeles Times
  • City Controller Wendy Greuel is one of several L.A. officials who have been crusading for months to trim the citys cellphone bill.
City Controller Wendy Greuel is one of several L.A. officials who have been… (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles…)

Among the many anxieties of modern life is the arrival of the monthly cellphone bill — and the surprises it often contains.

Anyone who has been made queasy by an unexpected roaming charge or a sky-high long-distance fee can appreciate how City Controller Wendy Greuel felt Wednesday when she revealed that the city of Los Angeles — in a variety of ways — wasted as much as $1 million last year on employee-issued cellphones.

According to her audit, the city squandered thousands of dollars each month for directory assistance, call forwarding and overage text-messaging charges. It also paid thousands of dollars to maintain hundreds of phones that were not used for months at a time.

Meanwhile, the city was overpaying cellphone carriers, the audit found, because officials in various city departments failed to take advantage of cheaper phone rates and plans.

Greuel is one of several city officials who have been crusading for months to trim the city's cellphone bill.

She has called for centralized oversight of phone contracts — each department now negotiates its own contract with carriers — and has suggested that the city get rid of many of its phones.

"I gave up my city cellphone," Greuel said at a news conference, holding her personal iPhone in the air.

She said that if Los Angeles stripped some employees of their city phones and instead gave stipends for conducting work-related business on personal cellphones, the city would save more than $1.2 million annually.

Her gesture echoed Gov. Jerry Brown's move in January to give up his cellphone and order that half of the state's 96,000 employees carrying cellphones do the same.

It speaks to the way that cellphones, like city or state-issued vehicles, have become emblems of government waste.

"I have to wonder whether it's more of a luxury than a necessity," Greuel said, noting that the audit found many of the roughly 20% of city employees who have been issued cellphones may have gotten them without even having to demonstrate a need.

She said workers in some departments, such as the Los Angeles Police Department, may not need cellphones because they have access to laptop computers, two-way radios or other forms of communication.

Greuel identified nearly 12,000 cellphones in the city. Before the audit, Greuel said, nobody knew how many cellphones the city paid for.

The Department of Water and Power, with 3,971 phones, is the biggest user, she said. The Los Angeles Police Department, with 1,525 phones, was next.

The audit looked at cellphone use in seven city departments last year. Along with faulting department officials for failing to pursue cheaper contracts with carriers, it says they did not properly monitor usage.

According to the audit, LAPD employees racked up nearly $16,000 in charges for text messages in just three months.

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