DENVER (AP) – Colorado officials insist they’re combing through state spending to try to close an estimated half-billion dollar shortfall — but figuring out exactly how much Colorado pays for employees’ mobile devices is nearly impossible, and it’s a tab that largely has gone unnoticed.
The state keeps no central record of how much it spends on cellphones and wireless devices for state workers, rolling up hundreds of thousands of dollars each month during a budget crunch so severe that lawmakers have mulled over eliminating free breakfasts for needy schoolchildren.
State officials say they spend about $3.6 million a year on cellphones for state workers — but they concede that figure is an estimate based on a single month’s tab.
No one disputes that cellphones are an everyday necessity for some in state government. But records obtained by The Associated Press under Colorado’s Open Records Act show the state allows each agency to monitor its employee bills and usage.
The Governor’s Office of Information Technology, which tracks some of the state’s overall cellphone use, said taxpayers are currently paying for some 6,600 mobile devices — about one for every five state employees. Those devices include BlackBerrys, cellphones without email, and wireless Internet cards.
The AP sought public records from 19 state departments for this story.
OIT estimated that Colorado spends about $3.6 million per year on cellphones and other wireless devices, a figure based on multiplying last December’s state bill of about $313,000 by 12 months. OIT officials said it would be impossible to produce annual data for previous years because the information is not centrally maintained. OIT said it happened to have December’s tab but didn’t have other monthly totals available.
Those numbers don’t include employees of Colorado public colleges, whose budgets aren’t centrally tracked, or the state’s 100 lawmakers, who don’t have state-paid phones.
Rep. Jon Becker, a Republican who sits on the Joint Budget Committee, said it should be easier to determine how much the state pays — and for which services.
“Because $3.6 million, if that is the correct (number), and I do not know the correct number at this point, if that is the correct number, it’s not a drop in the bucket,” Becker said.
By comparison, Becker cited the proposed closing of a prison in rural southeastern Colorado to save money. Closing Fort Lyon Correctional Facility — which may be delayed amid concern about effects on local communities — would save Colorado $3 million this year.
Earlier this year, the JBC voted to cut $124,000 for free school breakfasts for about 56,000 low-income schoolchildren enrolled in the Start Smart Nutrition Program. Lawmakers changed their minds after public outcry.
Agencies say mobile devices are crucial for state employees. For example, most of the state’s 1,600 wireless Internet cards are used by state troopers in their patrol cars, allowing officers to check for outstanding warrants and other safety details during traffic stops, said Todd Olson, chief financial officer at OIT. Elsewhere, cellphones allow employees to quickly communicate from the field without having to make extra trips to the office.
“When problems or issues come up on projects, decisions need to be made quickly. Cellphones allow for quicker response time,” said Stacey Stegman, spokeswoman for the Department of Transportation.
Colorado budget-writers told AP they aren’t aware of any agency proposing broad cuts to cellphone costs. One of the last statewide attempts came in 2008, when then-Gov. Bill Ritter ordered state employees to pool minutes with Verizon Wireless Services in a giant “friends and family” reorganization touted as “an exciting cost-saving change.”
OIT estimated the move saved $620,000 in 2008. In the fiscal year after the change, however, Colorado’s payments to Verizon dropped less than $6,000, to $2.22 million, according to the state’s Transparency Online Project System, which tracks vendor spending. Taxpayer-funded cellphones through other mobile carriers, including smaller numbers using Sprint or AT&T, weren’t affected.
Olson said the state will save an extra $200,000 per year by shrinking minutes further starting next month.
Colorado’s departments have a varied track record for monitoring how many mobile devices their employees have and how much they cost.
Most departments reported that spending and numbers of phones have stayed about the same or risen over the last three years, for which AP sought records.
The largest bill, according to records provided to AP, belongs to the Department of Transportation, which paid nearly $794,000 during the fiscal year that ended June 30. CDOT couldn’t say how many phones comprised that tab, and finding spending totals for previous years “isn’t centralized and would take considerable effort” to produce, Stegman said. She said that CDOT, one of the biggest state agencies, had 1,520 phones for about 3,300 employees at the end of February.
The Department of Natural Resources, another large state agency, provided an estimate of “700-800” cellphones in its use. The department estimated it spent about $400,000 the last full fiscal year. In an email responding to an AP request, a DNR employee said that a thorough breakdown of cellphone spending “would require the hiring of temporary help.”
Government watchdogs who heard AP’s numbers complained that beyond the spending confusion, Colorado appears to have no central standard for which employees need mobile devices.
“Is anyone looking to see what taxpayers get for it?” said Amy Oliver Cooke, director of the Colorado Transparency Project and the Independence Institute. “There are some people, 24/7 they need to be able to be contacted, I get that. But is that every single one of them? I don’t think so.”
Another state facing drastic budget cuts is eliminating some government cellphones. California Gov. Jerry Brown gave up his cellphone in January and ordered half the state’s 96,000 employees carrying cellphones to do the same. Brown said his state could save $20 million a year by cutting non-essential cellphones.
“It is difficult for me to believe that 40 percent of all state employees must be equipped with taxpayer-funded cell phones,” Brown said when he issued his order.
A spokeswoman for Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, Megan Castle, said the governor’s office “is working with other state agencies regarding options to reduce costs,” but outlined no specific plans to cut cellphones.
Democratic Sen. Pat Steadman, another JBC member, said the state needs to balance the cost of cellphones against their usefulness.
“I’m sure there are things we could tighten up” in cellphone spending, Steadman said. “But on the other hand, people expect a certain amount of accessibility by everyone, private sector or public sector.”
Becker, with the JBC, said understands cellphones are necessary. But he said that doesn’t mean they should be off officials’ radar.
“Because if you can find efficiencies, and mind you, I don’t know if you’re going to find a huge savings inside of that line, but if we can find half a million dollars’ worth of savings in that line, it’s worth it,” he said.
– By Ivan Moreno and Kristen Wyatt, AP Writers
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)