Augusta Public Works Director Teresa Smith rang up $1,398.34 in cell phone charges in July - eclipsing former Fire Chief Ronnie Few's old cell phone record.
City Administrator George Kolb defends the bill, saying Smith was out of town much of that month on business, but she still had to stay in touch with her department and other officials, and that accounted for unusually high roaming charges - and, in several instances, very long talks.
One can quibble over whether all the calls were necessary, or whether Smith talked too long. The broader issue for taxpayers to consider is whether the use of cell phones hasn't gone way overboard.
A Chronicle report last April pointed out that just 10 years ago cell phone bills for Richmond County's 30 phones was $17,000 for the year. The rates were $27.50 for 100 minutes, $35 for 160 minutes or $65 for 300 minutes per phone.
Today, 189 employees of the local government have cell phones for which the city pays 7 cents a minute, plus long distance and roaming charges. The cell phone budget for the year is $97,180, and that represents more than a $20,500 increase over last year.
It will be interesting to see if there will be more cell phone increases in the new budget that Kolb will propose to city commissioners on Monday. There should not be.
In fact, the proper question is, shouldn't the cell phone budget be cut?
Do 189 city employees actually need a cell phone? We understand the public benefit for top administrators like Kolb and Smith, as well as emergency personnel, to have cell phones. But isn't that enough?
Couldn't some savings be had by cutting back on the number of employees who have cell phones? And for those who do have the cells, can't the chat time be reduced? Smith talked twice for over an hour on out-of-town roaming calls.
Up until about 12 years ago, Richmond County government operated without cell phones. Cell phones were regarded as luxury items. Now they're so indispensable the government can't operate without 189 of them? Give us a break!
Yet, when Kolb was asked whether he thought local taxpayers benefited enough from the cell phones to justify the average monthly cost of about $8,000, he answered affirmatively. In terms of emergency responses, quick access and improved communications - not only between government departments, but also between government and the public - he thinks it's well worth the price.
No doubt it's worth it to the administrator. He can be more efficient, able to ask a question or make a request at the drop of a hat.
Still, is it worth the astronomical cost? Consider: Most employees with cell phones also have pagers, costing taxpayers $24,000 a year, and more than 20 city departments have two-way radio systems that cost taxpayers $500,000 a year.
Is all that chatter really making discernible improvements in delivering city services? How many pay-phone calls could you make on $8,000 a month?
There is such a thing as having too much of a good thing. Perhaps Augusta government has more communication than it really needs.
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