Money wasted as phone system overhaul stalls

There's one topic about which everyone at City Hall can agree: The phones are terrible.

Many lack basic features, such as call waiting and caller ID. Some don't tell you when you've received a voice mail. And the city's system is millions of dollars more expensive than other more modern options.


Yet, a year after Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Comptroller Joan Pratt sparred over which arm of city government had the right to replace the phone system, there's no plan in the works to get that done.

"We're wasting taxpayer money to pay for a system that's already been deemed antiquated, ineffective and costly," said City Councilwoman Helen Holton, who chairs the council's budget committee.


Pratt's office last summer urged a $7 million contract go to IBM, which won a bidding process supervised by her office. But the mayor rejected the deal as too expensive, and the city's Board of Estimates voted against it on July 11, 2012.

While Pratt was seeking bids, the Mayor's Office of Information Technology was quietly using an existing contract to spend nearly $675,000 on phone and computer equipment to start replacing the system, an investigation by the city's inspector general found. Inspector General David N. McClintock also found that the mayor's technology office withheld information from other city officials about the project.

In October, the administration put forward a proposal to establish a 12-member commission — controlled by the mayor — to take the lead on replacing the phone system. Pratt rejected the plan.

Asked recently about the status of a phone system upgrade, Pratt said that little progress has been made.

"We're in discussions with an administration official," Pratt said, declining to name the official. "We're waiting to have another meeting to continue our discussions."

For her part, Rawlings-Blake said, "there's still more work to be done" before new proposals can be sought. An aide said the administration planned to try again to reach an agreement with Pratt.

In the meantime, both sides agree the city is wasting millions of dollars on its 14,000-line system. According to Pratt's estimates, the system has cost the city nearly $5 million over the past year. Chris Tonjes, the mayor's chief of information technology, has said the city could save more than $2 million a year by upgrading the phones.

A state agency that was once part of the city system has upgraded its phones in the past year, offering evidence of the savings that could be achieved citywide. The Baltimore state's attorney's office has moved to a voice-over-internet protocol system; the 270-line system has caller ID, call forwarding and other features, and allows the prosecutors' office to save $75,000 annually.


"We're really pleased about the functional upgrades," Mark Cheshire, a spokesman for State's Attorney Gregg Bernstein, said. "We're more accessible in working with our law enforcement partners."

City Councilman Brandon Scott, who was on a committee that recommended a phone overhaul in 2011, said citizens need to know about the immediate savings the city could realize if it ditches its old phone system.

"They need to know that the state's attorney's office is saving money by doing this," he said. "Everyone's going to have put egos and feelings aside to do what's right for the taxpayers. It makes no sense for every city employee to have to have a land line and computer when you can run them both through the same system."

The city's Centrex system, which is run by Verizon, has been in place for decades.

Former Mayor Sheila Dixon said she remembers many in City Hall believed the phones were outdated even during the mayoral administration of Martin O'Malley.

"The phone system has been an issue for a while," said Dixon, who said she was working with Pratt to upgrade the phones when she was forced to step down in 2010 after being convicted of a misdemeanor charge of embezzlement.


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In March, Tonjes said he was drafting an "alternative plan" to overhaul the phone system that would ultimately lead to giving outside vendors much of the responsibility. No such plan has been released.

Holton said the onus of improving the city's phones ultimately rests with Rawlings-Blake, who controls the budget and the votes on the city's spending panel, the Board of Estimates.

"It would be nice to see them work together and learn to work through their differences for the good of Baltimore City," she said.

Others just want to have phones that don't look like ancient relics.

"They've had the same phone system in the city since I was in elementary school," said Scott, who at 29 is the youngest member of the City Council. "We need to get this issue done and over with."