Mayor's technology chief developing phone system plan

Overhauling city's outdated, expensive phones has been a contentious issue

March 09, 2013|By Luke Broadwater, The Baltimore Sun

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's technology chief said Friday he's drafting an "alternative plan" to overhaul the city government's outdated, expensive phone system.

The strategy? Get out of the phone business.

"I'm not convinced, strategically, it makes sense for the city to be in the telephone business," said Chris Tonjes, who heads the Mayor's Office of Information Technology. "We're looking for a lower-cost alternative that has as much infrastructure provided by the vendor as possible."

Tonjes said he hopes he can get Comptroller Joan M. Pratt to agree with his plan, though the two offices have been at odds for months. He said he wants the mayor to sign off on an effort to — once again — seek a vendor to convert the city's phone system to a Voice over Internet Protocol, or VoIP system, but with less work done in-house. He said he hoped to finish his plan within 30 days.

"We're looking for a productive, alternative path forward that everyone can agree on," Tonjes said.

Tonjes said he believes the city could cut its per line expenses by half. The city now pays about $45 per phone line a month, but Tonjes said he would seek a vendor that would charge the city less than $20 per line.

Pratt did not respond to requests for comment Friday. In June, she objected to an attempt by the information technology office to quietly install VoIP phones and said the office was illegally cutting out the comptroller's office, which has controlled city phones since the 1940s.

Pratt's office had sought competitive bids for such a project, but Rawlings-Blake declined to approve a $7.4 million contract with Pratt's chosen vendor, IBM.

Administration officials have said repeatedly that the mayor's technology office could run the city's phone system "better, faster and cheaper" than the comptroller's staff.

Some city phones have no caller ID or voice mail notification and are built upon a copper wire network that is expensive to maintain and expand, Tonjes said.

Pratt's Municipal Telephone Exchange, with its 23 employees and 12 operators, is now in charge of the city's phones and the $16 million a year municipal phone bill.

Tonjes acknowledged that his latest proposal could result in a need for fewer employees in the comptroller's office but said he hoped the operators could join his office to handle citizens' nonemergency 311 calls. Tonjes could then train 311 operators to dispatch 911 calls, reducing processing time for emergencies, he said.

Ian Brennan, a spokesman for Rawlings-Blake, said the mayor tasked Tonjes to come up with an alternative proposal but would need to see a final draft before approving anything.

Pratt and Rawlings-Blake have been sparring for months over who should upgrade the city's phone system. The war of words led to an investigation by the city's inspector general and a court battle. All the while, both sides have said the city is wasting several hundred thousand dollars a month.

An audit released this week by independent HPA Consulting Group of Rochester, N.Y., said the city phone system is wasting as much as $1 million annually. The system could save as much as $700,000 a year by eliminating lines that are no longer being used, the report says.

Tonjes has estimated that Baltimore could save 15 percent of its $16 million annual phone bill, or $2.4 million a year, simply by eliminating idle phone lines. Pratt has said that switching to a VoIP system could save the city about $400,000 per month. She estimates that the city has wasted $3.2 million since Rawlings-Blake declined to approve the IBM contract in June.

Last month, a city circuit judge dismissed Pratt's lawsuit that alleged that the Rawlings-Blake administration was illegally installing a new municipal phone system. The suit was dismissed with prejudice, meaning it cannot be refiled.

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