D.C. Council renegotiates cellphone contract after $61,000 in bills

February 26, 2012

D.C. Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown is trying to slash council spending on cellphones after it racked up $61,000 in bills in a little more than a year due to excessive roaming and data charges, according to council records.

As he searches for efficiencies in government, Brown (D) recently concluded that the council was wasting thousands of dollars each month because it had an outdated group rate for members and employees.

Most council members and about 30 senior staff members use government-issued cellphones or BlackBerrys paid for through the council’s $19 million annual budget. Over the past 16 months, they spent about $61,000 talking, e-mailing and texting, according to the records.

For a majority of council and staff members, monthly bills were no greater than what many consumers pay for basic cellphone service, between $50 and $75 per month.

But some members’ bills regularly exceeded $100 a month, causing the council’s secretary, Nyasha Smith, to renegotiate the council’s contract with AT&T. The move is expected to lower bills by about a third.

“This is about all of us looking at different ways to save money and bringing down the cost of the government,” Brown said. “This is just one small piece . . . but anytime you can save 30 percent, that is significant.”

Under the new plan, which takes effect this month, the 40 people issued phones will share a pool of 18,000 voice minutes per month. They also will get unlimited data and text messaging within the continental United States.

Council officials were unable to provide details of the previous plan but said it did not appear to be a generous group rate for data and messaging. Compounding the costs, some members and staff were not keeping close tabs on roaming fees, Brown said.

Council member Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4) had the highest average bill over the past 16 months. Last year, Bowser incurred $3,016 in charges, costing taxpayers about $251 per month. Bowser’s bill reached $734.45 in August, records show.

Bowser attributed the surge to “international roaming charges” when she was on vacation. Bowser, who sits on the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority board, said she had to participate in a WMATA conference call during the trip.

“I am always on duty, check in with my office and available on my BlackBerry at all times, even while on vacation,” Bowser said.

In July, council member Michael A. Brown’s monthly bill reached $1,083. A month later, Brown’s cellphone cost taxpayers $409.09.

Brown (I-At Large) also was traveling last summer.

“It is our understanding that those charges were for data usage for official e-mails he received while on travel,” Michael A. Brown’s office said in a statement. “I am always accessible to my colleagues, staff, and constituents who e-mail me at any time — regardless of time of day or location,” the council member said.

In addition to the chairman, Bowser and Michael A. Brown, Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), David A. Catania (I-At Large), Vincent B. Orange (D-At Large), Yvette M. Alexander (D-Ward 7) and Phil Mendelson (D-At Large) are listed in records as having council-issued phones. Their bills usually ranged from $50 to $150 per month.

Members can also request phones for staff members. In a few cases, some staff members were responsible for hundreds of dollars in monthly charges.

With the unlimited data under the new AT&T plan, Brown hopes to keep costs down without keeping members from answering constituents’ or staff members’ e-mails.

One thing won’t change under the plan: Council members will need to temporarily upgrade to an international plan before they travel outside the country — or risk those pesky roaming charges.

Tim Craig is The Post’s bureau chief in Pakistan. He has also covered conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and within the District of Columbia government.
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