Hanging up on leased phones

Howard employees to get stipends for using personal devices for county business

March 07, 2010|By Larry Carson | larry.carson@baltsun.com

After months of discussion and planning, the Ulman administration is changing the way Howard County pays for mobile phones and other communication devices used by more than 500 employees, a move expected to save more than $350,000 annually.

Instead of the county leasing the phones directly and providing them to employees, workers - including County Executive Ken Ulman - will get a flat monthly stipend, depending on their usage and need. Employees have been divided into four categories or tiers, with stipends ranging from $15 to $105 a month. The county will also subsidize the purchase of a device. The overall number of phones has been cut by 150, according to county information director Kevin Enright. The conversion began March 1, he said.

The policy is the latest in a series of small cost-cutting measures begun over the past several years, including the closing of the county print shop and the cable television studio, and added restrictions on county vehicle use. Despite those, Howard is grappling with a projected $13 million revenue shortfall for this fiscal year because of the recession.

"We spent a lot of time and effort in making sure that this policy does not hamper the level of service we provide the citizens of the county, while still saving the county money," Ulman said.

For the remainder of this year, he will get $105 a month for his own BlackBerry, which Enright said is used so heavily that the money is considered an expense reimbursement, not compensation.

New stipends in December
Starting in December, the next elected executive will get a $150-a-month stipend, as will the five newly elected County Council members. The current five council members will continue using county-leased phones this year, Enright said, since their jobs are technically part-time and several members don't use the phones as much as Ulman does. County law prohibits changing elected officials' compensation during a four-year term of office.

Council Chairwoman Courtney Watson noted that council members will pay taxes on the money they get for phones, since it is considered compensation.

Ulman said requirements of different people's jobs and their communication needs made the task of crafting the new policy difficult.

"We had a lot of issues to work through," he said. The change is a "cultural shift," he said, for people who got used to depending more heavily on cell phones and texting devices over the past few years.

"I really feel strongly these are the kinds of changes we have to make" to get through the recession. The change "is one of the smaller things, but it adds up," he said of his cost-cutting moves.

Republicans have criticized Ulman for spending money on his environmental and health initiatives as the recession loomed, instead of socking cash away for future retiree health benefits. The executive has hired 54 more police officers, bought dozens of hybrid vehicles for government and spent $3 million on new recycling containers for every county household to boost collections. He's also devoted $1 million over two years to starting the much-discussed Healthy Howard program to provide access to health care for uninsured county residents.

For the new phone policy, the top tier stipend will go to senior managers and those who use the devices for public safety purposes and need to be able to respond during off hours and while away from their offices or vehicles.

The stipends then decline to $70 a month, $45 a month and $15 a month for those who only occasionally need a phone. Employees could also apply for subsidies of up to $150 to buy a BlackBerry or dual voice and data device, or $50 for purchase of a cell phone, but no more than once every two years.

Employees could also save
Still, the new policy could save money for workers by eliminating the need for a second personal device. Until now, those with a county phone were limited to using it only for county business, so many also had a second, personal phone. The new policy also will save the county internal record-keeping to satisfy the Internal Revenue Service, county administrative officer Lonnie Robbins has said.

"I'm pleased we're moving forward," Ulman said.

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