Cascade County, Mont., Saves With Phone ‘Family Plan’

County copes with cellphone costs by lumping departments’ minutes into one shared plan.

by / January 5, 2012
The Cascade County Courthouse in Great Falls, Mont. Photo courtesy R. Alton / Flickr Creative Commons

For governments of all sizes, the issue of controlling expenditures on cellphones is a management issue that isn’t going away. Some like the state of California have chosen to revoke cellphones from employees who are deemed not to need them. Other cities have decided to give a stipend to employees who use their own device for work purposes. Still others are conceding that higher cellphone costs are an inevitable reality in today’s world.

A county in Montana is an example no less valid approach to cut costs. A new countywide cellphone plan for Cascade County, Mont., will reduce overall costs by lumping each department’s minutes into one county-shared plan.

“It’s basically a big family plan,” said Randy Hand, the county finance director who also oversees the plan.

County officials anticipate the new plan will save $30,000 to $50,000 annually.

Previously, employees who were authorized to use phones for work owned their own phones under individual plans, and they were reimbursed for work calls each month. The county was paying upward of $60,000 a year for cell phone use.

County officials wanted to switch to a family plan sooner, said Undersheriff John Stevens, who oversees phone use by Sherriff’s office employees. But a previous issue years ago with county-administered phones prevented it.

In 2008, the IRS audited the county and fined it close to $5,000 for issuing county cellphones and failing to track whether calls made on those phones were personal or work-related. The law at the time required the county to withhold taxes if the calls weren’t tracked.

In response, Cascade County began issuing partial reimbursements to employees who arranged their own cellphone service.

A new IRS rule again allows the county to use a shared plan, which Stevens said is the best deal economically for the county.

County commissioners voted unanimously to sign up for the single cell phone plan with Verizon through the Western States Contracting Alliance, a group of states that purchase services together. Through the shared plan, the county gets a better deal on minutes.

So far, 73 out of 500 employees have a county-issued cell phone. Reimbursements to employees ended Dec. 31 as the county converts to the new system.

The Sherriff’s office all has reduced the number of phones from 30 to 12 under the new plan, said Stevens. The basic rule, Stevens said, is “If I require you to answer the phone, I need to provide the phone to you.” Employees in leadership roles — lieutenants, detectives, certain administrative staff—are generally the employees required to answer calls at all times.

To avoid future problems with the IRS, each department tracks its own usage of minutes from a monthly statement sent by Verizon. However, there’s some flexibility with the rules. “It’s definitely a business phone … but if your wife calls, I don’t expect you not to answer it,” Stevens said.

Elected officials are the only employees still reimbursed for their personal phones because they’re not allowed to talk politics over county-owned phones, said Hand.

Hand expects the number of employees who get county-issued cellphones to increase in the upcoming months. “I think it’s becoming important to have cell phones for communications ability,” he said. Cellphones and mobile Internet access have improved employee productivity and allowed them to perform their work in the field instead of making frequent return trips to the office.

These types of inventive strategies, including a single cellphone plan, have saved the county from major financial issues.

“Have we had financial problems? Yes,” Hand said. “But we are conscientious; we know the money isn’t guaranteed. The commissioners have had a policy for 8 to 9 years that they don’t want to increase taxes.”  Officials also haven’t cut any salaries.

And tightening where they can, like the cell phone plan, goes toward the effort. “Every dime helps,” Hand said.

Lauren Katims Nadeau

Lauren Katims previously served as a staff writer and contributing writer for Government Technology magazine.