Baltimore Comptroller Joan M. Pratt brought a jumbo check to the city's Board of Estimates meeting Wednesday to represent the $400,000 she says the city is wasting per month on its outdated, expensive phone system.
"We are losing $400,000 a month until this is implemented, fully," Pratt said of the conversion to a more-modern phone system. "We need to move beyond this. I am asking, 'Madam Mayor, let's not continue to be stuck in the mud.'"
Pratt said her comments were a response to claims made by Chris Tonjes, the mayor's new IT director. He said last week that the comptroller's office is likely wasting tens of thousands of dollars a month on "phantom" phone lines that are never used.
Tonjes, who heads the Mayor's Office of Information Technology, said last week he's discovered 51 idle phone lines in his agency alone. He recommended that the city conduct an audit to review the status of its estimated 14,000 lines — and said that based on audits in other cities, Baltimore probably could save 15 percent of its $16 million annual phone bill or about $2 million.
"How can you allege or claim that you are saving $2 million when you have not shown proof?" Pratt asked Wednesday. "Maybe he pulled it out the air?"
Tonjes, who assumed his post in July, first discussed his review of the phone system at a meeting of what the Rawlings-Blake administration is calling "PhoneStat." Pratt was invited to the meeting, but did not attend, because she said such a meeting is not necessary.
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said after that she wanted to work "in collaboration with the comptroller."
"It would have been fantastic if, in the spirit of collaboration, she came," Rawlings-Blake said of PhoneStat. "She didn't come and no one from the comptroller's office came."
Pratt and Rawlings-Blake have been sparring for months over who should 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 citizens should be outraged this is going on," Pratt said. "They are in support of the lawsuit and they are concerned, because their taxpayer dollars are being wasted."
Tension between Pratt and Rawlings-Blake flared in June, when the mayor moved to defer a $7.4 million contract with IBM for a new phone system and Pratt accused her of trying to install a phone system without going through the proper bidding process.
The next month, Baltimore's Board of Estimates, which is controlled by Rawlings-Blake, rejected the IBM contract. Pratt said IBM was the only qualified bidder should have been awarded the work. The administration has argued that the contract is not a good deal and that the phone system should be supervised by the information technology office, not the comptroller.
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, the mayor's office said. Tonjes also took issue with higher hourly rates for some IBM workers than what his office now pays for the same functions.
The city's inspector general investigated Rawlings-Blake administration's purchase of nearly $675,000 in phone and computer equipment and found 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.
City Solicitor George Nilson has filed a motion in an attempt to dismiss Pratt's lawsuit and disqualify her attorney.
Earlier this week, Pratt read a statement over the phone to The Baltimore Sun. It's posted below:
STATEMENT FROM COMPTROLLER JOAN M. PRATT:
In an open and transparent government, it is expected that the MOIT should have sent the questions to me directly for several reasons: 1) The office of the comptroller has had authority over telephones of almost 100 year and I am very much of aware of the current state of the city’s telephone system. There is a need for improvement. 2) The comptroller’s office has conducted an extensive study of the telecommunications needs of the city. 3) In response to the this study, the city is prepared today to make significant improvements in the delivery of the telephone system through Voice-over-IP.
The concept of Phonestat is not necessary because it is redundant to the action already taken by my office. We know there are issues with the current telephone system. We are not current with technology. We know there are some issues with billing. That’s why my office has already taken action to improve telephone services with the approval of the Board of Estimates by engaging a consultant to study the city's telephone services, to meet with agencies, recommend options and assist with the solicitation process for a new VOIP system. To move forward on resolving billing issues, at my request, the Board of Estimates approved a consultant to conduct a billing audit. The Phonestat process is duplicative of these efforts and will not reveal any new information. From the reports from Mr. Tonjes, it appears the information is inaccurate and will be misleading to the public. It is my view that I do not object to helping Mr. Tonjes come up to speed. It is futile and non-productive to redo all of the work that has been performed over the last several years instead of moving forward with the IBM contract which will aid the city in solving the problems we have with the current telephone system.