By Mike Baker Associated Press
OLYMPIA — The Washington State Auditor’s Office, which recently rattled state government with an examination of idle cellphones, has likewise spent thousands of dollars on devices that get little or no use.
An Associated Press review of two years of agency wireless records, released under state public records laws, found that five of the office’s 24 phones didn’t make a call in the most recently billed month while two data cards for mobile Internet didn’t have any activity. Another four phones consumed less than seven minutes of call time while two other data lines used only 5MBs worth.
State Auditor Brian Sonntag himself was one of the culprits. He used only 10 minutes of billed call time in the span of 16 months and recorded zero calls in 12 of the billing cycles, even though the state was paying close to $60 each month for a plan giving him 400 minutes of call time and data.
Sonntag initially said in an AP interview that he only had a Blackberry phone for “a month, maybe a couple months” before deciding that he wasn’t getting enough use out of it. But, actually, he had that phone for about two and a half years — from October 2008 to March 2011.
The auditor eventually acknowledged through a spokeswoman that he had the phone longer than he thought and should have turned it in sooner.
The office began eliminating some of its own dead weight around the time the audit began and found that half of the cellphones were no longer needed. After The AP raised questions about some of the other unused devices that remained on the books, the office said it was removing four more and still examining others.
Sonntag, a Democrat, said he believed the agency was doing a good job of managing the phones even before the audit began but said they wanted to review the usage in part to make sure they were up to par.
“You really look stupid if you identify a situation, then look at it later and go, ‘Oh, How are we doing?”’ Sonntag said. “We don’t want to look silly if we haven’t addressed it ourselves.”
The audit released in November examined 89 state agencies and found that the state spent about $9.2 million on some 22,000 wireless devices in one year. Auditors identified some 6,700 phones — totaling $1.8 million in costs — that were used minimally or not at all.
The Department of Social and Health Services deactivated more than 700 phones prior to the audit’s release and another 400 since the audit came out. The agency also noted that half of the infrequently used phones were assigned for emergency management reasons, meaning that frequent phone use would have been inappropriate. But agency spokesman Thomas Shapley said the audit did lead to better awareness of the issue.
“We weren’t doing a good a job as we realized,” Shapley said.
Auditors recommended a variety of ways to curb phone costs, including the use of more prepaid phones, stipends for employees to use their personal phones and optimization to match usage with the most cost-effective plans. Officials believe that optimizing cellphone services would save the state at least $9 million over the next five years.
Agencies have already been working to more closely monitor phones, something that Sonntag said shouldn’t only be happening because an audit took place.
“Those are the kinds of things all agencies ought to be doing all the time,” he said. “It should just be part of doing business every day.”