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Originally published Friday, November 18, 2011 at 1:41 PM

State wasting big money on idle cellphones

An audit of state employees' cellphone usage found the state paid more than $500,000 in a year for 2,000 mobile devices that weren't being used.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Hold the phone

$9.2 million

What 89 state agencies spent on cellphone use in a year

6,679

Number of phones used less than 30 minutes a month or not at all

$1.8 million

State spending on the little-used phones

quotes So if the state wastes $500,000 a year in unused cellphones, how much do they waste a... Read more
quotes "Tax Payers paid $500,000 for unused cellphones" The correct title. Read more
quotes it takes a budget crunch like this to start looking for inefficiencies? and Gregoire... Read more

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An audit of state employees' cellphone usage found the state paid more than $500,000 in a year for 2,000 mobile devices that weren't being used.

The report, released Friday by State Auditor Brian Sonntag, comes on the heels of Gov. Chris Gregoire's order earlier this month that state agencies reduce phone costs as the state grapples with a nearly $2 billion budget shortfall over the next two years.

Sonntag said his office analyzed state-funded mobile devices between March 2010 and February 2011 after hearing that other states achieved big cost savings by making changes to cellphone policies.

The Auditor's Office reviewed the use of some 22,000 cellphones assigned to 89 state agencies. The phones were purchased through multiple carriers — including Verizon, Sprint and AT&T — and the contracts were maintained by the Department of Information Services, according to Sonntag's office.

In the one-year analysis, auditors found:

• The state spent $9.2 million on cellphone use.

• Some 6,679 phones, accounting for $1.8 million in costs, were identified as being used minimally, such as less than 30 minutes of talk a month, or not used at all.

• Many phones were locked into inefficient plans, resulting in fees that wouldn't have been charged if the agency had a more appropriate cellphone contract. Auditors found one phone that cost the state $434 a month, although the same level of service was available for $100 a month from another plan.

"This is money that does not need to be spent, obviously. The fact it was screams for attention," Sonntag said.

Sonntag said his office evaluated only the state's largest agencies. There is no clear figure on how many total cellphones the state pays for, he said.

The Auditor's Office has recommended that agencies turn in all unused or little-used phones, use more prepaid phones, offer stipends to employees to use their personal phones for state business, and contract with a cellphone-optimization specialist who can match phone use with cost-effective plans.

Sonntag wrote in the report that if the state "optimizes" cellphone plans, it could save $9 million to $18 million over the next five years. Focusing on having the right cellphone plans helped California achieve a 28 percent cost savings, the report said.

After Gregoire issued her directive, the Office of Financial Management (OFM) pushed agencies to ensure that phones and plans are assigned only to employees who need them for work, to monitor monthly cellphone bills, to eliminate office or landline phones where possible, and to report all changes to OFM by February.

In its response to the audit, OFM pointed out that agencies already have been changing their cellphone use in recent months or years.

The Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) canceled 1,113 phones, the Department of Corrections canceled 430 phones and the Department of Labor and Industries canceled 142 phones. Between the reductions and cost-saving measures, the state is saving more than $732,000 a year, OFM said.

"We are clamping down. It makes sense," said Thomas Shapley, spokesman for DSHS. "The phones we cut were the ones that needed to be deactivated, ones that had little or no use and no justification for security or emergency-management reasons."

Jennifer Sullivan: 206-464-8294 or jensullivan@seattletimes.com.

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