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Pratt disputes Mosby's plan to save money on Baltimore telephone system

Baltimore Comptroller Joan M. Pratt said Wednesday she is moving toward cutting costs in the telephone system used by city workers, taking issue with the claim mayoral hopeful and Councilman Nick J. Mosby made about the potential for dramatic savings.

Pratt — who had been locked in a dispute with the Rawlings-Blake administration over how to modernize the municipal telephone exchange — said her office has met with vendors across the telecommunications industry but has found no plan that could save the $8.3 million a year Mosby suggested.

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"We have worked with consultants and analyzed various technical and cost models to replace our current legacy phone system that has become more expensive to maintain," Pratt said in a statement. "I have not seen any solution that will reduce our expenses by 80 percent as Mr. Mosby stated."

Mosby listed the savings as part of a plan to cut property taxes for Baltimore homeowners by 15.3 percent and 6.57 percent for businesses. He said the city would save the money if Baltimore adopts the same operations plan and buys the same equipment as San Antonio.

San Antonio spends $3.21 per resident on its municipal phone system, he said. Baltimore's costs $16.56, according to his research. Mosby worked in the telecommunications industry for a decade.

Mosby's campaign stood behind their projection Wednesday. He said his research is based on the number of city workers and population in both cities and their current budgets for telecommunications services.

Mosby said he is frustrated by the time he has taken to upgrade the system.

"Taking years to improve a system that everyone agrees is outdated — including Joan Pratt when she cites that it is a legacy system with increasing costs — is a prime example of inefficient spending," Mosby said in statement. "Every month, let alone year, that the decision is stalled to implement a new system represents an unconscionable amount of taxpayer money being wasted, in a City that desperately needs to spend that money effectively."

Pratt said she is moving to replace Baltimore's system. Her clash with the Rawlings-Blake administration led to an ethics complaint, an inspector general's investigation and a court battle. The two are now working together to upgrade the bulk of the city's 10,000 phone lines, adding features such as conference calling and call waiting.

The city received bids from seven companies last March that will be awarded "in the very near future," Pratt said, pending an ongoing technical review and price evaluation.

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The dispute caused the project to be delayed for about three years at an estimated cost of $400,000 a month. Pratt tried to proceed with an overhaul in 2012 after her office used a bidding process to select IBM for a $7.4 million contract.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who is not seeking re-election, 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.

The comptroller's office has controlled city phone lines since the 1940s. Pratt said the system's proposed budget for the fiscal year that starts in July is about $9.3 million. About half of that amount is for Verizon services to support the current equipment. Another 16 percent is for wireless lines.

"As Comptroller, I look for ways look to cut costs, increase our City's revenue, and identify savings for the City of Baltimore and its citizens," Pratt said Wednesday.

She said her office has paid off the debt for the old system that had been refinanced twice. Two years ago, Pratt said she initiated an audit of the telephone exchange that led to the elimination of lines and circuits, helping to cut costs.

The city's former chief information technology officer previously identified 51 idle phone lines in a single agency and recommended an audit.

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