WILKES-BARRE – The three city council members who took office this year said they were surprised to learn they would be given taxpayer-funded cellphones to conduct city business.
Tony George, Maureen Lavelle and George Brown, each in their first year of office, said they did not ask for, nor did they expect to be provided a city phone. They accepted the devices believing it would help them better serve their constituents.
Records from Verizon Wireless show the phones saw little use during the first nine months of the year, however.
The phones, which cost $99 each, come with a monthly access plan that averages just more than $50 per phone and provides for 400 minutes of calls plus unlimited night/weekend and mobile-to-mobile minutes.
As of September, Lavelle had used a total of 491 minutes for all types of calls, the bills show. George used a total of 799 minutes, while Brown used 1,172.
Councilman Bill Barrett, who has had a city-supplied cellphone for several years, was the highest user with 5,447 minutes as of September. Council President Mike Merritt said he was offered a phone, but declined it.
Drew McLaughlin, administrative coordinator, said council members were provided phones based on the belief it benefits constituent service. Given the city's financial struggles, the administration believes the phones should be eliminated.
McLaughlin said the city can't mandate council give up the phones, however, because it's a separate administrative branch.
Barrett, who has served on council since 2004, said he believes the phones are important because they allow constituents to more readily contact council members.
We don't have an office in City Hall, so basically, this is our office, Barrett said. It's easier to get me on the cell than it is at home because I'm never there.
Barrett, who does not have a personal cellphone, said he also uses the city phone to check his city email and frequently uses it to take pictures of abandoned vehicles or dilapidated structures, which he forwards to appropriate city departments for action.
When I see something wrong I take a photo and send it wherever it needs to go, he said.
Barrett said he wants to keep the city phone. Given the city's financial situation, he's willing to pay for it himself.
I think it's too important not to have. Rather than give it back, I'd rather pay for it, he said.
Brown, Lavelle and George, each of whom have personal cellphones, said they also believe having the city phones benefits constituents. They said they are willing to give up their city phones given the tough financial times.
With the way the budget is I have no problem giving it up, George said. My phone number is listed in the book; they can call me at the house.
Lavelle said she primarily uses her phone to check her city email.
I'm certainly open to not have one, she said. I didn't intend on having one in the first place and didn't know I'd be given one.
Brown said the phone has been helpful, but he agrees the cost may outweigh the benefit.
My cellphone is mainly used by people calling me up with issues they'd like me to address, Brown said. The thing is, is it a necessity? I'd have no problem not using the cellphone if it will save taxpayers money.