Using jumbo check, Pratt alleges $2.8M in waste on city phones

Baltimore Comptroller Joan M. Pratt took a jumbo check to the city's Board of Estimates meeting Wednesday to represent the $2.8 million she says the city has wasted since June on its outdated, expensive phone system.

It was the second time in three months Pratt used an oversize check to underscore an argument about government waste after a meeting of the city's spending panel. In November, she held up a prop check illustrating the $400,000 she says the city is wasting on its phone system per month.

"Today, we've already wasted $2.8 million dollars," Pratt said of the city leaders' inability to come to an agreement on how to upgrade the system. "I met with the administration on numerous occasions and I thought we were making progress. Our meetings have been unsuccessful and no progress has been made."

Pratt and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake have been sparring for months over how to upgrade the city's phone system, leading to a war of words, an investigation by the city's inspector general and a court battle after Pratt sued the city. The comptroller wants the city to award a $7.4 million contract to IBM, which won a bidding process supervised by her office.

"It continues to be my desire to move forward and to resolve this," Rawlings-Blake said Wednesday in response to Pratt. "It certainly doesn't come any easier when there is a lawsuit involved. ... We have to figure out a way to reduce the costs. It's a $7 million contract for less than 3,000 phones."

Tension between Pratt and Rawlings-Blake flared in June, when the mayor moved to defer the IBM contract. Pratt accused the mayor of trying to install a phone system without going through the proper bidding process and instead using existing computer equipment and staffing contracts with Digicon Corp. of Herndon, Va.

The city's inspector general investigated those claims and found that the Mayor's Office of Information Technology's purchase of phone and computer equipment contained possible conflicts of interest and missed opportunities for "significant cost savings." Inspector General David N. McClintock also found that the mayor's technology office withheld information from other city officials about the project.

On Wednesday, Pratt remained insistent that the IBM contract was the only possible option.

"This is the only contract that can be legally awarded," she said. "The contract needs to be approved because the city's current telephone system is outdated. ... I, more than anyone, would spend the city's money the way I spend my own. So, if there are savings, trust me, we're going to get them for the citizens."

Rawlings-Blake continued to argue that the contract is not a good deal and that Pratt should agree to a memo her administration has put forward that would make the phone system supervised by the information technology office, not the comptroller. Rawlings-Blake also said she wants an independent audit of the city phone system before installing a new one.

"It seems reasonable to me that there be a full and independent audit of our current system, so we can immediately save money," the mayor said. "I'm disappointed that the comptroller's office is insistent that there be no audit."

The mayor's new information technology officer, Chris Tonjes, has said he takes issue with some provisions in the IBM contract. The contract called for an estimated $320,000 in travel and relocation costs for IBM workers and tax breaks for out-of-state workers whose home states have lower tax rates. Tonjes also said some IBM workers would receive hourly rates that are higher than those his office pays for the same functions.

"We have to figure out a way to do better than that," Rawlings-Blake said.

IBM has said it "stands ready" to deliver Voice-over-Internet Protocol (VoIP) phone services to Baltimore so the city can "better serve its citizens."

A hearing on motions in Pratt's lawsuit is scheduled for Jan. 28.

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