Are cell phones wasted on state employees?

By Alexander Chang and Nan Turner
Capital News Service

RICHMOND – With electronic communication becoming an essential need in both the personal and business worlds, it’s no surprise why the GEICO Caveman advertisement of a Neanderthal using technology in a modern setting became so popular.

Cellphones are king in electronic and digital communication. Like businesses, government agencies – including colleges and universities – often provide employees cellphones and coverage plans to improve productivity. But such technology carries a price: of more than $6 million a year.

That’s how much the commonwealth of Virginia spends on the more than 11,000 cellphones it provides to state government employees, according to a recent study by Walter Kucharski, the state auditor of public accounts.

He said the state may be wasting a chunk of that money: Virginia spent almost $1 million on unused wireless phones from July through December of 2009.

“The Commonwealth averaged 4,514 phones with zero minutes per month totaling over $962,487 in the six months reviewed, while averaging $160,414 per month,” the audit said.

“A phone with zero minutes is not necessarily wasteful because the agency may use the phone for emergencies. However, state agencies should periodically review employee cellphone usage to determine if there is a continuing need for the employee to have the cellphone. As part of the review, agencies should eliminate phones for employees whose use does not justify having a phone. Eliminating unnecessary phones will result in direct cost savings for agencies.”

Kucharski’s investigators examined the cellphone records for 134 state agencies, including public universities. The Virginia Department of Transportation had the most cellphones (2,336), followed by the Department of Corrections (1,210), the Virginia State Police (919) and the Virginia Department of Health (851).

Then, at No. 5, came Virginia Commonwealth University, with 419 cellphones. That was far more than any other school studied, such as Virginia Tech (362), Old Dominion University (223), Longwood University (81) and James Madison University (58), the report said.

VCU’s 419 cellphones resulted in a bill of $166,221 during the last half of 2009. In contrast, George Mason University averaged 27 phones a month and had a bill of $11,934 for those six months, according to the study.

Auditors found that 126 of VCU’s cellphones had zero minutes.

Robin Roane, director of telecommunications services at VCU, said there’s a reasonable explanation why phones may be unused: Those devices are for emergencies, especially at the VCU Medical Center.

“As far as phones being left in the box, that is what those phones were purchased for,” Roane said. “They were purchased as part of our disaster recovery emergency plan. Say something was to happen at the hospital and they couldn’t use the phones in that building. They could use the cellphones in the boxes that haven’t been used. That’s what they were purchased for in the first place.”

Most of VCU’s cellphones are in use, and they are being utilized both effectively and economically, according to Christopher Brown, a support technician with the Division of Student Affairs and Enrollment Services.

The VCU Department of Residential Life and Housing issues cellphones only to full-time employees who are part of the emergency staff and to key administrators.

“Most of the time, the cellphones are used heavily, and anything with the BlackBerrys is issued to the proper people,” Brown said. “It’s a good investment because, say, for instance that a few housing managers had an issue with a dorm: If they didn’t have their phones on direct connect, they wouldn’t have been able to contact people immediately and solve problems as efficiently.”

By VCU policy, university employees cannot use their state-provided cellphone for personal business. And there could be liability issues if VCU employees use their personal cellphones for university business, Brown said.

VCU faculty and staff members must undergo an extensive request process to receive a cellular device from the university. They must get approval from their department head and then from a dean or vice president. Only then does the VCU Telecommunications Department issue a phone.

Kucharski’s report said state government as a whole could do a better job of managing cellphones and controlling costs.

“The point of the study was to show that different departments in the state had a lot of different plans and that there was no way to determine who should get what kind of cellphone and what kind of plan they should be under,” Kurcharski said.

“We had people buying plans with a fixed number of minutes and had unused minutes that kept rolling forward. And then there were people who ended up having to pay extra because they exceeded minutes. So there was a host of different issues.”

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