Last updated: March 02. 2013 12:38AM - 3376 Views

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WILKES-BARRE — Three months after a Times Leader analysis of city cellphone bills raised questions about cost and possible abuse, city officials have cancelled the plans in lieu of a stipend system they say will save more than $13,000 a year.

But a review of the newly implemented program raises questions of whether further savings could be achieved if a less-generous stipend were offered to employees to compensate them for business use of their personal phones.

Stipends were divided into two categories: $40 per month for employees who were deemed to need only a basic cellphone with talk/text, and $80 a month for employees who were deemed to need a smartphone with talk/text and data, which will allow them to access email and the Internet.

The city has approved 11 employees for the $40 stipend, at a cost $5,280 per year, and 17 for the $80 stipend, at a cost of $16,320 per year, for a total of $21,600. The city will maintain one data device and four phones on a city-plan (two shared in the police department and two with the ambulances) at a cost of $2,016 per year, for a grand total of $23,688.

That’s a significant reduction from the $39,831 records show the city paid for 60 city-owned cellphones in 2012, and the $32,337 it paid in 2011.

Questions remain, however, regarding how the city determined the amount of the stipend, and whether it’s reasonable.

A review of cellphone plans offered by several major carriers shows that, in some instances, the stipend could result in an employee receiving more money than he or she pays for the plan.

For instance, the “share everything” plan through VerizonWireless offers a basic cell phone for $30 per month (excluding taxes and fees) with unlimited talk/text (no data). Even with taxes and fees added in, that bill would still be less than the $40 stipend for a basic phone that will now be paid.

There also are a number of pre-paid phone companies, including Virgin Mobile, Boost Mobile and Straight Talk, that offer smartphone plans with unlimited talk/text/data ranging from $45 to $55 per month — less than the $80 stipend being offered for smart phone users.

A review of cellphones records from last year also shows that, in many cases, the amount of the stipend to be paid is more than what the city had been paying for a city-owned phone. That’s particularly true for employees in the code enforcement office. Cellphone bills from last year show the city paid between $19.99 and $28.98 per month for most of those phones.

The same holds true for the 17 employees who will get the $80 rate. The city paid from $49.35 to $62.19 per month for the city-owned phones of those employees last year.

Drew McLaughlin, administrative coordinator, said officials in the information technology department considered a variety of factors in determining the amount of the stipend.

“We looked at the average cellphone cost of an individual’s plan and established a system based off of that that would compensate them for the work-related expense but not fully pay for the phone,” he said. “We believe $40 and $80 is a reasonable compensation level, but it is by no means ironclad … If it’s proven we may be compensating more than necessary, we can adjust it.”

McLaughlin also acknowledged that in some cases the city is now paying more per phone with the stipend than it did when it had its own plan. Officials believe the stipend system is the best way to go because, overall, it will save money.

An analysis conducted by the IT department showed the city was paying an average of $3,053 per month for phones it had through a contract with Verizon Wireless. The stipend system will reduce that cost to $1,968 a month, for a savings of $1,085 per month, or $13,020 per year.

In addition to the savings in monthly fees, the city will no longer have to pay for new equipment, upgrades or other costs should a phone be lost or damaged, McLaughlin said.

The stipend system also will eliminate any questions regarding whether employees are improperly using a city-owned phone for personal business.

An article that appeared in The Times Leader in December raised questions regarding whether some employees were abusing the phones. The newspaper reviewed cellphone usage in 2011 and 2012 and discovered several employees who worked day shift used an excessive amount of night and weekend minutes. Other employees used a large amount of data that was inconsistent with their job descriptions.

Frank Sorick, president of the Wilkes-Barre Taxpayer’s Association, said he thinks the stipends are overly generous. He questioned whether employees should be getting any stipend, given that many cell plans now provide for unlimited texts/minutes, which means the employee would not incur any additional charge if their supervisor calls them on city business.

“I don’t see the need to pay an employee for something that’s not costing the employer any more to use,” he said.

McLaughlin said the city doesn’t believe it can mandate employees to have personal cellphones for their jobs without compensating them. He likened it to the practice of paying employees mileage for use of their personal vehicles.

“If you are not provided a city-issued car and you go somewhere on city business, you are reimbursed for your use of private property,” he said.

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