Comptroller to hire consultant to review phone costs

Baltimore's spending panel agreed Wednesday to hire a consultant in an attempt to save money on the city's outdated phone system — even as agencies say they've identified nearly 1,200 unused phone lines that cost the city $670,000 annually.

Comptroller Joan M. Pratt, whose office has traditionally overseen city phones, asked for the contract. Pratt and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake have been in a dispute for months over how best to update the phone system.

Without discussion, the Board of Estimates unanimously approved the contract with HPA Consulting Group of Rochester, N.Y., which has previously said the city phone system is wasting as much as $1 million annually. For six months, the consultants will "recommend additional ways to lower telecommunication costs while maintaining their service levels."

The consultants will not receive any up-front fee but will be paid 16 percent of the money they save the city, officials said.

The review will include recommendations for eliminating telephone lines and circuits "that the city is no longer using, reconfiguring existing services and eliminating services that should not be on the city's invoice," according to board documents.

Rawlings-Blake's technology chief, Chris Tonjes, wrote in a letter that the administration supports the audit. However, Tonjes said, city agencies have already reviewed about half of the city's phone lines and have identified more than 1,100 unused lines. The location of the lines has been reported to the Municipal Telephone Exchange, which reports to Pratt, for cancellation, Tonjes said.

"This information is critically important so that the city is not charged by a consultant for work we have already done in-house," Tonjes wrote.

According to Tonjes, 12 city agencies have performed audits of their phone lines and found 1,193 not in use. When they are canceled, the city will save $671,600 a year, he said.

The city's Fire Department identified 233 unused lines, while the Police Department found 195 unused lines and the Transportation Department 182 ,city officials said.

Pratt and Rawlings-Blake have sparred over a proposal to replace the old phone system with Voice-over-Internet Protocol phones.

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 $4 million since Rawlings-Blake's administration declined in June to approve a contract for IBM to do the work. The administration has argued that the Mayor's Office of Information Technology is better able to manage the job. No progress has been reported in resolving the dispute.

In February, a city circuit judge dismissed Pratt's lawsuit that alleged the administration was attempting to illegally install a new municipal phone system without going through a new bidding process.

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