WILKES-BARRE – For years, dozens of city employees ranging from a mechanic to the mayor have been supplied cellphones that have cost taxpayers $35,000 to $40,000 a year on average.
As of September this year, the city paid for a total of 60 phones that were dispersed among roughly 330 employees, about 20 percent, of its workforce.
The talk hasn't come cheap.
A review of cellphone records shows that from 2009 to 2011, the city paid its provider, Verizon Wireless, $112,627.
In the first nine months of 2012, Verizon was paid another $28,045, or roughly $3,000 per month. At that rate, the city will pay about $36,000 this year.
The expense comes at a time when Mayor Tom Leighton is calling for union concessions and employee layoffs to help plug a $2 million budget shortfall.
Frank Sorick, head of the Wilkes-Barre Taxpayers Association and a frequent critic of city spending, said he believes the $36,000 spent annually on cellphones would be better used to keep workers slated for layoffs.
Thirty-six thousand is a full-time DPW worker, he said. We're talking about layoffs and concessions; let's lay off the phone company.
City Administrator Marie McCormick and Administrative Coordinator Drew McLaughlin said the administration believes cellphones are important, but officials are planning to reduce the number of phones and/or change to a stipend system that would reimburse employees for business use of their personal phones to save money.
A stipend system would also eliminate any questions regarding use of the phones, such as issues uncovered in a Times Leader analysis of phone bills.
The newspaper's analysis of bills from January 2011 through September 2012 raises concerns about how closely the city has monitored costs and employee usage.
Among the findings:
• The city has paid for phones for more than a dozen employees and departments despite the fact the devices were used little in the past two years.
• Dozens of employees routinely incurred excess usage charges above the monthly plan fee, costing the city an additional $2,452 in usage charges in 2011 and $1,560 as of September 2012.
• One phone assigned to Edward St. Hart, a health inspector who left city employment in 2010, was not canceled until 2011, meaning the city paid $302 for a phone that went unused.
The review of the bills, obtained through a Right-to-Know Request, also raises questions regarding the city's oversight to ensure the phones are not used for personal business.
The city's policy says the phones are to be used only for official business, but an analysis of calling and data usage revealed patterns that seem inconsistent with the job descriptions of some employees.
For instance, several employees who work day shift, Monday through Friday, routinely used several hundred night and weekend minutes each month. Others used a large number of voice minutes or gigabytes of data that seem high given their positions.
McLaughlin noted the city's plan includes unlimited night and weekend minutes, so the usage did not cost additional money.
Obviously if there was an abuse of phones for personal use, that's a concern to us, he said. From a strictly fiscal and budget perspective, those issues do not translate into wasted taxpayer funds.
Neither McLaughlin nor McCormick could explain why nothing was apparently done to address excess usage charges numerous employees incurred in 2011 and 2012.
The newspaper's analysis showed some employees incurred usage charges in multiple months.
The highest charges, $223, were incurred by DPW dispatcher Ron Romanelli in 2011.
McLaughlin said the city's information technology director is looking into the matter, but believes the charges were most likely incurred by users of basic cellphones for text messages and/or picture/video messages that exceeded the plan's allowance.
The current monthly access fee for the plans varies from a low of $20 per month (plus taxes, surcharges and fees) for basic phones to roughly $82 for smartphones.
McLaughlin said employees are issued phones based on the specifics of their jobs.
Workers who are routinely on the road are given phones so the city can remain in contact with them. Other factors include whether an employee needs to check email from home, as members of the administration often do.
Given the city's financial situation, officials began looking at whether the number of phones could be cut when they began budget preparation in August, he said.
Officials believe the best option is to go to a stipend system, which is estimated to save about $10,000, he said. A stipend system would also remove questions about whether a city phone was being inappropriately used for personal business, he said.
Employees are told that their phones are for city business, but McLaughlin said it's not a zero tolerance policy. Employees were expected to use their personal discretion.
The policy puts the burden on the employee not to abuse it and to use it for the purpose it was intended, he said.
He and McCormick acknowledged usage patterns detected by The Times Leader raise questions regarding whether all employees have adhered to that policy.
For instance, the analysis revealed Kevin Egroff, a mechanic in the Department of Public Works, was the top user of voice minutes of all 60 cellphones through September 2012, with 22,268 minutes used. That translates to an average of 41 hours a month, or more than 10 hours per week for a person who spends the bulk of his time in the city garage fixing vehicles.
McCormick said Egroff was assigned the phone so he could have contact with workers on the road and if he needed to call DPW for information while getting parts at an auto parts store. City officials had already flagged his use as being excessive prior to the newspaper bringing the issue to their attention, she said.
We determined it was excessive usage, and he has been questioned about it, she said.
Several other employees' usage did not catch the city's attention, including Carol Smith, a rental inspector with the code enforcement office, and Paul Ginter, who is employed in the health department.
Ginter, whose primary job is to write grants, was a heavy user of data, The Times Leader's analysis showed.
Data usage on cellphones is most commonly incurred when a user visits a website, checks emails, sends photos or downloads a document, application or other media source.
It's also incurred when streaming something, such as music or video, from an Internet site to a device.
According to Verizon, an average to moderate user would use roughly 2 to 4 gigabytes of data a month.
Records show Ginter routinely used 5 to 8 gigabytes each month, and once used as much as 10 gigabytes a month.
Contacted Thursday, Ginter said he could not explain why his data usage was so high.
Ginter said he primarily uses the phone to visit websites to obtain information for his other duties, which include health education. He noted he has an additional job of investigating illegal dumping of garbage, which requires him to take photos that he transmits via his phone's email.
But he also admitted he has used his city phone to stream music from Pandora, a free Internet music site, while on the road. Ginter said he did not consider that abuse because he could still take calls, and was never advised by anyone in the city such use was not appropriate.
Quite honestly, I don't see where it's an issue. I can take a call at any time, he said. I look at Pandora as a radio … It's not interfering at all with me being able to do my job.
Smith did not use excessive data, but she was a heavy user of voice minutes, ranking as the fourth-highest user out of all 60 cellphones through September 2012.
Records show she used a total of 14,326 minutes, or 239 hours, over the nine months. That translates to an average weekly usage of roughly 400 minutes, 6.6 hours.
She also was among the top users of night and weekend minutes, even though she works day shift, Monday through Friday, using 3,128 minutes through August, or an average of 391 per month. (The figure does not include usage in September, which was unavailable because the format of the bills changed that month and no longer breaks out night/weekend minutes.)
Smith's usage also far exceeded the use by other rental inspectors in her department.
Marc Murphy, for instance, used 5,012 total minutes through September 2012, of which 782 were night and weekend, while Jo Ann Semenza used 4,755 total minutes, of which 72 were night and weekend.
Smith declined to answer questions when contacted Friday, saying she was not authorized to speak to the news media.
McLaughlin and McCormick said Smith's usage does raise questions, but they needed to do further research to determine if there was possible abuse.
McLaughlin noted it's possible Smith, who inspects rental properties to approve them for habitation, might get calls on the weekends from the public.
A lot of residents have the inspectors' phone numbers. If someone moves in, they may want to see if they had an inspection, McLaughlin said. I'm not saying that explains away all of that, but it does not necessarily mean the use of night and weekend minutes was for a personal nature.
The records reviewed by The Times Leader did not include a detailed listing of the phone numbers of incoming and outgoing calls on each phone. That information was not available as the state Supreme Court ruled in 2008 that cellphone logs are not public record.
That information is available to the city, however. McLaughlin said city officials will look into the issues raised by the newspaper's analysis and take action, if needed.
The phone is a privilege. It's there to make their job more efficient. Anything beyond that should be limited, he said. The department heads will speak to them to get an explanation for the usage. If there are any abuses we will certainly handle that.
One issue he said the city has already addressed is identifying for elimination phones that had low usage, he said.
The Times Leader's analysis showed 17 of the 60 phones the city pays for were used for less than 1,000 minutes over the first nine months of the year.
For instance, City Clerk Jim Ryan used just 13 voice minutes. Other phones with low usage in 2012 included those assigned to police officers Robert Hughes (85 minutes), Phil Myers (361) and Joseph Novak (274); health department nurse Delphine Torbik (219) and Finance Officer Brett Kittrick (202).
McLaughlin said some of those phones, including Ryan's, are on the list to be eliminated. The city also is checking to see if it can get a credit for the phone that was used by St. Hart, the inspector who left city employment in 2010.
McLaughlin said the city kept paying the bill, even though the phone was not used, because it was kept as a reserve. Given it was never used, the city is hopeful Verizon will credit the charges.
• How W-B compares to other cities on issue, Page 12A