Mayor's office contends city pays for 'phantom' phone lines

The city of Baltimore is likely wasting tens of thousands of dollars a month on "phantom" phone lines that are never used, the city's new information technology director said Thursday.

Chris Tonjes, who heads the Mayor's Office of Information Technology, said 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.

"We'd probably realize an immediate savings of $2 million," Tonjes said, adding that he believes the city could be paying for hundreds of lines that aren't used.

In his office, Tonjes said, the city pays about $45 a month for each of the unused lines, and has done so for 10 years. That comes to about $275,000 in waste, he said.

Tonjes, who assumed his post in July, first discussed his review of the phone system at a meeting Wednesday of what the Rawlings-Blake administration is calling "PhoneStat." Administration officials have proposed regular meetings to review statistics and seek improvements in the phone system, as the Police Department and some other city agencies have done.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who attended the meeting, blamed the office of Comptroller Joan M. Pratt for the alleged waste — and criticized Pratt for not coming to the session.

"A lot of these questions can only be answered by the comptroller," Rawlings-Blake said. "My frustration is we've been paying for these phantom phone lines. There hasn't been an audit."

Pratt supervises the city's auditor and the Municipal Telephone Exchange, or MTE, which has run the city's phone system since the 1940s. Asked for comment, she referred questions to her attorney, Charles G. Bernstein, who said he doubted Tonjes' statement that the city is paying for hundreds of phantom phone lines.

"I'm skeptical of his claims," he said. "But if Mr. Tonjes will give us the information, we'll look into it."

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.

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 lowest bidder and should have been awarded the work.

Bernstein said there was no need for Pratt to attend the PhoneStat meeting, which he derided as pointless.

"The comptroller has had authority over phones for 80 years. If there's any need for a meeting on phones, the comptroller will call it," he said. "This is a dog-and-pony show, which is at best an alternative bureaucracy that is totally unnecessary."

He added that the Board of Estimates in 2012 approved a contract for an outside firm to audit Verizon's charges to the city.

Last month in Baltimore Circuit Court, both sides lamented the state of the city's phones during a hearing on Pratt's suit seeking to have the phone contract awarded to IBM. City Solicitor George Nilson called the Verizon Centrex system that the city currently uses "outmoded, outdated and too expensive." Pratt's lawyer, Bernstein, a former city judge, characterized the phone system as "lousy."

Bernstein said every month the city delays awarding a contract to IBM it wastes $400,000 on an expensive and ineffective phone system. "That $2 million in savings, that's exactly what we flushed down the toilet since June because the mayor keeps trying to jerry-rig this," he said.

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.

At the PhoneStat meeting, Rawlings-Blake said problems with over-spending on city phones dates back years. She recalled a time as City Council president when city agencies were being charged per text, resulting in high bills.

"For me, this is about us working together to handle this effectively and efficiently," said Rawlings-Blake, noting that 80 percent of city government employees fall under her purview. "I would ask on behalf of 80 percent of the MTE's customers for an audit."

The city's inspector general investigated the Rawlings-Blake administration's purchase of nearly $675,000 in phone and computer equipment under an existing contract 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.

But McClintock said in an interview that his probe found no illegalities.

The next hearing date in the court case, titled Pratt and Joan Doe, Taxpayer, v. Mayor and City Council, has not been set. The city has filed a motion to dismiss.