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Tracking state cell phones 

Do California-style cuts really save money?

State governments across the country are looking for ways to trim their budgets as the country tries to pull itself out of recession. In January, California Gov. Jerry Brown made headlines by ordering that half the cell phones used by state employees, and paid for by the government, would be eliminated. The plan would cut 48,000 devices, saving the government $20 million.

The move was welcomed by the Tea Party and other deficit hawks who lauded the governor's decision as a model of fiscal responsibility. Others weren't so sure. Technology analysts fear the move might actually hurt the government, eliminating efficiencies and employee mobility.

In Arkansas, the Office of State Procurement (OSP) handles cell phone contracts for state agencies. The OSP is part of the Western States Contracting Alliance (WSCA), an organization formed to allow states to cooperatively negotiate contracts with vendors in order to keep costs down. The WSCA and the OSP negotiate rates with three providers: AT&T, Sprint and Verizon. Agencies then choose the plans that are right for each employee. In fiscal year 2010, the latest data available from OSP, state agencies had a total of 15,074 lines (meaning cell phone plans, data plans and portable wireless Internet devices for laptop computers) at a cost of $8,921,915.95.

The OSP gave the Times documents obtained from the telephone companies showing the highest number of lines each agency had at any one time during the year and the total annual cost of those services. The number of lines used by each agency changes from month to month depending on the agency's needs.

According to those documents, the Department of Human Services leads all other agencies and higher education institutions with 2,999 lines at a cost of $1,616,588.46 per year. The University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences came in second with 1,508 lines at a cost of $1,329,574.64. The University of Arkansas at Fayetteville rounded out the top three, spending $823,485.87 on 1,299 lines in fiscal year 2010.

Julie Munsell, who until recently served as the communications director for DHS, said cell phones are a good investment.

"I could understand why people would be skeptical of the cost for such a large agency, but we have 7,000 employees, give or take," Munsell says. "We use them for two reasons and one is accessibility. There are people within the organization that you really need to be able to reach 24 hours per day, seven days a week, whether they're managing or just providing a service and you need to get hold of them. The other is for folks who are in transit most of the time. I would guess that if you cross-referenced the number of miles that an employee travels with the use of cell phones you would find a very strong correlation."

When combined with all of its satellite campuses, including Cooperative Extension, the University of Arkansas System outspent every other state entity at $2,478,484.79 per year. That figure does not include the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences.

John Diamond, associate vice chancellor of university relations, says cell phones are a time-saving tool and can be helpful in emergency situations.

"[Just look at] our resident assistants and resident directors at our housing facilities," Diamond says. "They have cell phones because their job is to be wandering around the building and making sure everything's OK and that there are no safety or security issues. Before cell phones, they would be hanging around their rooms or the front desk, waiting for someone to come down and tell them there was a water leak on the third floor."

DHS has also started to phase out some land-line telephones, moving toward VOIP (voice over Internet protocol) phones for some employees.

"It's a pilot that started with our technology people but it's spreading throughout the agency," Munsell said. "That's another area where you would hope to see some call savings."

Munsell says every time a contract comes up for renewal or a change is made to a particular plan, the agency re-evaluates employee cell phone use. Diamond says the UA has a written policy to determine who gets cell phones and who does not.

"Usually it's a decision that's made by a dean or a director or somebody higher up, like a vice chancellor or vice provost," he says. "So there is an approval process and the measure of whether or not a person should be given a university phone depends on the nature of that person's work."

For a list of all state agencies who go through the OSP for phone contracts, the number of lines they use and the amount of money they spend, visit www.arktimes.com/statecellphones.

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