Talkative public employees must hang it up or pay Baltimore County cracks down on workers' use of car telephones, hopes to save $50,000.

February 11, 1991|By Glenn Small | Glenn Small,Evening Sun Staff

The unrestricted use of car telephones by more than 70 Baltimore County employees will be sharply curtailed under a new policy.

The restrictions, to take effect March 1, were announced Friday by County Attorney Arnold Jablon. They coincided with an inquiry by The Evening Sun into the use of car phones by county employees.

A county official said the new policy could cut the car phone bill by as much as $50,000 this year.

Under the old policy, the employees had use of the phones 24 hours a day, seven days a week, in the county-owned cars. The county paid for air time and service charges up front, without any effort to distinguish between business and personal calls.

The new policy requires employees to pay the bills themselves, then solicit reimbursement for calls related to county business. Employees must pay for personal calls, plus the $11-a-month car phone service charge.

Employees have until this Friday to decide whether they want to abide by the new policy or give up their car phones.

A committee consisting of Jablon; Fred Homan, director of the Budget Office; and John E. Lutz, director of Central Services, studied the policy and its costs, said Jablon. They found the old policy too permissive and costly and suggested the new one, he said.

"The old policy, which I was not a part of making, was that the car phone was an extension of the car," Jablon said. "They could be used for everything. There would be no detailed billings."

After an analysis of the costs, gleaned from departmental budgets, Homan said the county spent $69,300 on car phones in 1990, $85,681 in 1989 and $43,731 in 1988.

Had the policy not been changed, Homan estimated, the county would have spent between $65,000 and $85,000 this year. He estimated that the new policy will save the county $40,000 to $50,000.

Jablon revealed the change the day after The Evening Sun got its first look at detailed, call-by-call car phone billings for 27 county officials, including Jablon, former County Executive Dennis F. Rasmussen, several Rasmussen aides and numerous department heads.

The detailed billings, which cover the period of May through October 1990, were requested Dec. 18, under the Freedom of Information Act.

Jablon said the request for detailed billings caused the new county executive, Roger B. Hayden, to "look at the whole issue."

A key change is that county employees will now receive the detailed, call-by-call billings. Previously, no one except the County Council members got them. Under the Rasmussen administration, the county requested monthly totals instead of call-by-call billings.

Thomas Toporovich, secretary to the council, said the council got those detailed billings in 1988 or 1989, but only after demanding to have them. Several council members routinely reimbursed the county for personal calls, he said.

Frank Robey, county administrative officer under Rasmussen, said officials didn't want to get into the messy business of trying to distinguish between personal and business calls.

For instance, Robey said, he often called home using the car phone to tell his wife he would be late for dinner.

"Is that a business call or a personal call?" he asked. "I would consider that a business call."

Robey defended the old policy by saying that department heads would watch the monthly bills, looking for "outlandish or extremely high" car phone bills.

Robey lost the administrative officer's post after Hayden unseated Rasmussen. Robey remains on the county payroll as the director of emergency services, a $69,000-a-year post that he must give up by May 31.

Hayden exempted himself from the new policy. He also exempted County Council members, the sheriff, the state's attorney and the county administrative officer. Meanwhile, the new policy doesn't define the difference between a business call or a personal call.

The liberal car phone policy -- which Jablon said was intended originally only for members of the executive staff, the council and police and fire officials, as well as some department heads -- apparently spawned the rapid growth of car phones in the county.

When Robey was asked for a list of all the county-owned car phones in October, he had no idea how many there were because various departments were purchasing them out of their operating budgets.

It took Robey two months to produce the list, which includes 74 car phones assigned not only to council members and department heads but also to lower-level supervisors that Jablon said never were intended to have them.

About 35 car phones -- nearly half -- are used by members of the police and fire departments.

"I was surprised by some of the people who have them," Jablon said. "There are definitely people on that list that don't need them."

"There were more car phones out there than I anticipated when I got the list," said budget director Homan. "We began to ask: 'Who has a phone? Why do they have a phone? Is it an essential part of their job?' "

In his case, Homan, appointed director last year, has found he spends most of his time in the office and has had little use for the phone. He probably won't keep it, he said.

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