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City takes step toward replacing municipal phone system

Comptroller Joan Pratt talks about the first hearing on the city phones lawsuit after leaving The Mitchell Courthouse Thursday afternoon.
Comptroller Joan Pratt talks about the first hearing on the city phones lawsuit after leaving The Mitchell Courthouse Thursday afternoon. (Kim Hairston / Baltimore Sun)

Baltimore took a step Wednesday toward finally replacing its costly and antiquated municipal phone system as officials opened bids from seven companies vying for the job.

Work to upgrade the bulk of the city's 10,000 phone lines could start before the end of the year, adding modern features such as call waiting and conference calling.

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A dispute between Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Comptroller Joan M. Pratt caused the project to be delayed for about three years, costing the city an estimated $400,000 a month. The clash also led to an ethics complaint, an inspector general's investigation and a court battle.

Now, Pratt said, both sides have figured out how to move forward.

"The city will recognize millions of dollars of savings," Pratt said. "The unfortunate part is, this happened in July 2012. The city could have recognized millions of dollars of savings to date."

Downtown agencies, including the city's human resources department and the Baltimore state's attorney's office, will be among the first offices to be upgraded. The cost of the overall project won't be clear until after the bids are evaluated, Pratt said.

Pratt tried to proceed with a system overhaul three years ago after her office used a bidding process to select IBM for a $7.4 million contract. Rawlings-Blake rejected the plan as too expensive — at the same time the Mayor's Office of Information Technology was quietly replacing phones using an existing contract.

An investigation by the then-inspector general found the information technology staff spent nearly $675,000 on the upgrades, missing opportunities to save money, and also withheld information from other city officials about what they were doing.

Pratt sued the administration for failing to follow the competitive bidding process, but the suit was dismissed. In turn, Rawlings-Blake alleged that Pratt had violated the city's ethics code by accepting free legal services on the case from Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos' law firm.

That ethics investigation is continuing. On Wednesday, administration officials on the city's spending panel agreed to pay up to $300 an hour for outside counsel to advise the Ethics Board on the matter. The panel has previously capped spending on Pratt's defense at $2,000.

Jerome Mullen, who is now the city's chief technology officer, said officials worked toward a solution while analyzing the best way to improve the system's infrastructure.

"It's exciting to know we're finally going to have the capacity to utilize the modern capabilities," Mullen said. "We've gone without it for too long. Through this collaboration, we will provide a better service and hopefully save money."

The city will evaluate the seven bids received from technology companies and score the proposals. The bidders are Motorola Solutions, Verizon, IBM, Arrow Systems Integration, Black Box Network Services, Comm-Works/Fortran and Fulton Communications.

The evaluation for technical compliance is expected to take until mid-October. At that time, the winning bidder's proposal will be brought to the Board of Estimates for approval, Pratt said.

Mullen said the work of replacing the system could begin before the end of the year. Pratt said the upgrade will need to be phased in because the city's copper wire network isn't ready for the new technology, known as Voice over Internet Protocol.

The comptroller's office has controlled city phones since the 1940s, and the system is more expensive to operate than more modern ones.

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Not all of the city's phone lines will be converted, Pratt said. Some are used for fax machines and in places where the technology is not needed. It will take an estimated three years to complete the upgrade, she said.

"We could have been done had we started in 2012," Pratt said.

Pratt said she stands by her actions.

"I did what was in the best interest of the city and the citizens," she said. "As a person who is concerned about protecting the interest of the taxpayers, I felt it was necessary."

Digicon Corp. — the company the administration was using to upgrade the system — did not submit a bid for the project, though it's possible the company could look to partner with a firm that did submit a bid, officials said. Digicon officials didn't respond to a request for comment.

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