Should having a cell phone be considered an everyday personal expense of employment like buying work clothes and maintaining a reliable car? That’s the question at hand in Corpus Christi, Texas, where a cost-reduction measure initiated by the City Council is poised to make that notion part of the government culture.

In May, the municipality eliminated city-issued cell phones for many employees. The policy change slashed Corpus Christi’s cell phone inventory by half, from 900 phones to about 450. Now only selected remote workers, like meter readers and roadwork foremen, carry city-issued cell phones, and those phones must be left at the office at the end of each workday. All other city workers were told to use their personal phones on the job and submit reimbursement requests for the work-related minutes they use. The new policy will save $100,000 annually, according to Corpus Christi CIO Michael Armstrong. Before restricting government-issued cell phones, the city paid approximately $360,000 per year for the devices.

Under the new policy, the responsibility for tracking cell phone charges was withdrawn from Corpus Christi Municipal Information Systems (MIS), the city’s IT department, and given to individual agencies, which were told to police their employees’ phone minutes. Besides freeing up an MIS employee and saving money, the city’s IT department anticipates the change will reduce personal calls unscrupulously charged to the city government.

The new rule generally is unpopular among employees, but officials are watching to see if employees will eventually accept it as a standard business practice.

Putting Abuse in Check

Corpus Christi’s new cell phone compensation policy means more red tape for the individual agencies and less for the MIS. Before the change, MIS Functional Analyst Bertha Garcia’s entire job was managing the city’s cell phone bill, which stretched nearly 500 pages.

That bill often was riddled with erroneous charges made by the vendor, according to John Spiess, MIS operations manager. Garcia spent much of her time finding those errors and evaluating charges that were accumulated by employees. Another problem was that workers submitted bills in which personal calls were highlighted with explanations. Frequently calls not marked “personal” were made during nonwork hours. Garcia suspected that those calls — charged to the city — might be personal calls. However, following-up with the suspected abusers was the responsibility of the agencies that employed them. Garcia said the agencies often didn’t bother investigating the charges. She and Spiess assumed the agencies didn’t act because the charges were negligible compared to those agencies’ overall budgets. Furthermore, Spiess said some employees openly flaunted that they didn’t need personal cell phones or land lines if they had city-issued cell phones.

Indifference among the agencies finally could be changing, according to Garcia. “Now that they’re actually getting a monthly bill and they see what the charges are for the usage and the breakdown, they’re following the charges a lot more closely,” she said.     

Employees who want a reimbursement must now submit their personal phone bills, mark the work-related calls and then do a little math. “You go through your call detail that comes with your bill and indicate which of the calls were city-related calls and which were personal,” Armstrong said. “Then you do the math to get the cost per minute for your plan, and you can request reimbursement for the city use for those particular calls.”

This policy saves money in part because many employees don’t bother requesting reimbursements, he said. “Either it’s too much of a pain or they simply want to keep their phones private,” Armstrong said.

To get an accurate per-minute price quote, employees must submit their entire phone bill so the agency can verify the calculation. Consequently one might wonder if Corpus Christi opened itself to potential privacy lawsuits. Armstrong said officials discussed that concern, but weren’t especially worried about it. Years ago, before city-owned cell phones were widely deployed, Speiss said workers submitted their phone bills. He contended that no privacy lawsuits resulted then. Employees today sign a waiver agreeing to reveal their personal phone bills to city staff in exchange for a reimbursement.

Cost of Collecting a Paycheck 

Many Corpus Christi employees are wondering if having a cell phone is a requisite of having a job. After all, most employees provide their own means of transportation to and from the workplace and aren’t reimbursed for work clothes.

Predictably not all Corpus Christi employees are buying into that idea, according to Lani Trotter, IT program coordinator of public safety for the MIS. Some workers Trotter collaborates with won’t give her their personal phone numbers on the grounds that it’s private information. She said disgruntled employees tell her to send communications to them through their supervisors, to whom they will give their personal numbers. Trotter considers it a “passive-aggressive” form of protest, adding that it causes delays and hurts productivity.

Trotter doubts these particular employees were concerned about the added costs to their phone bills. “I can’t imagine the two or three phone calls a month we might exchange are going to impact their personal-usage plan or phone bill that much,” Trotter said. “But I may be wrong.”

Trotter has felt the new policy’s effects firsthand. She said she was disappointed to lose her city-issued BlackBerry, because the device enabled her to do her job faster. However, Trotter enjoys carrying her own phone, and she hasn’t seen an increase in her personal phone bill.

“You forget there was a time that you didn’t have a cell phone,” Trotter said. “When you take things away from government employees, you’d think you would have cut off their finger.”    

Trotter contended that complaints about the policy were subsiding. Meanwhile, Armstrong said some staff quickly warmed to the idea. “They’ve enjoyed having the freedom to choose the device they want to use,” he said. “Frankly at this point, we don’t hear much about it.”

Time will tell whether the municipality’s work force acclimates to the policy. Garcia said the city probably shouldn’t be too concerned with the angriest employees: “I think those who were more upset were probably the ones who were abusing it.”

Andy Opsahl  |  Features Editor