The Ulman administration is preparing to cut back on cell phone use by Howard County government employees - a move expected to save the county up to $500,000 a year, top county officials said.
"We're using this process department by department to take a fresh look at how they communicate," County Executive Ken Ulman told a recent meeting of the Compensation Commission, a citizens group appointed to recommend salaries for elected officials chosen in next year's election.
Council members and Ulman have told the commission that cell phone use - especially involving e-mails - has spiked since their election in 2006, making their jobs more difficult and demanding.
"It's just been a cultural change," Ulman said, noting that some who have county phones may not need them.
The move is the latest in a series of cost-saving changes that began last year with elimination of the county's cable television studio and staff, closure of the county's print shop and cutbacks on take-home cars. Although Howard County is in better fiscal shape than most Maryland jurisdictions, revenues continue to drop and the state is facing a $2 billion shortfall for next fiscal year, which could mean more state budget cuts.
According to Ulman, budget director Raymond S. Wacks and chief administrative officer Lonnie Robbins, the idea is to switch from having the county obtain cell phones for employees and County Council members to having it pay a monthly stipend of either $40 or $90 to workers deemed to need the phones.
That could allow some to use one phone, rather than one for personal use and a second phone for county business.
"It just gets away from record-keeping," Robbins said.
In addition, the county would reduce the number of cell phones from the roughly 1,000 now used by county workers. The changes, expected to be announced in a few weeks, would save money and eliminate county record-keeping required by the Internal Revenue Service, Ulman said. Wacks said cost savings can be achieved.
"We're paying $90 a month for someone to use the phone for 15 minutes a month," Wacks said. Moving to a two-tiered system, Robbins said, could get employees who do need a phone but don't use it much the lower monthly stipend. Instead of maintaining a separate county phone, the money could help pay for the person's personal phone, leaving the record-keeping to them.
Robbins said most of the phones - about 700 - are being used by public safety and emergency workers, though each County Council member also has one.
Howard Rensin, a committee member, said he understood that many governments want to encourage public safety workers to depend more on established emergency communications systems because in a crisis, cell phones are typically overwhelmed with calls and useless.
Robbins said the new policy "is a work in progress" that involves getting county department heads, unions and others involved.
"It's changing business-as-usual," he said about the review. Just the record keeping and administrative burden is onerous.
Council members are loath to give up their separate county cell phones, however.
Council Chairwoman Mary Kay Sigaty, a west Columbia Democrat, and other council members said they haven't been briefed on the new policy, so had no strong reaction.
Courtney Watson, an Ellicott City Democrat, said she'd like to keep her county phone, which she uses mainly to receive e-mails.
"It's probably reasonable," she said about the proposed policy, but she doesn't want to mix personal and county calls on her other, private phone.
Jen Terrasa, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat, said she relies heavily on her county phone.
"I think we use our phones perhaps more than others," she said, noting she's often up late at night returning e-mails. Greg Fox, a Republican from the southern county, said he also wants to keep his county phone.