The city of El Paso, Texas, is finding out a technology upgrade isn’t always as simple as doing a pilot and rolling out a solution.

Sometimes a city must also win over a skeptical public on the little things. That’s been the case after El Paso officials installed 50 video phones on the ninth and 10th floors of City Hall as part of a larger strategic IT initiative to be carried out in the coming years.

Local media headlines have blared the Cisco Systems video phones cost $469 a piece, drawing the ire of some officials and citizens. KVIA.com reported that city Rep. Beto O’Rourke said that he doesn’t think he needs a video phone and hasn’t used the video-conferencing capability. In the same report, some El Paso citizens disagreed with the city’s decision to use tax dollars for the video phones.

Miguel Gamino, the city’s IT director, defended the phone upgrade on Thursday and said the video phones are only a small part of a much bigger upgrade to the city’s infrastructure and connectivity.  The video phones aren’t what make up most of the cost.

“There’s been a lot of focus on the video component of this, but really it’s a very small piece of a larger comprehensive strategic initiative to upgrade the systems and infrastructure,” Gamino said.

El Paso plans to spend more than $20 million on citywide VoIP, a PeopleSoft re-implementation and numerous other improvements, according to a document on capital funding from the city’s IT department.

“The strategic plan is making a suggestion. Now that we’re moving forward with that suggestion, we’re pinning it down,” Gamino said.

The video phones had been in the works for nearly two years. In September 2009, the city approved funding for the telephony upgrade. The phones were piloted in City Hall by city attorneys and city representatives and those 50 are still in use now, said Miguel Gamino, the city’s IT director.

The city has discussed the possibility of installing video phones in the offices of 26 department heads throughout the city, but no official decision has been made yet. Gamino said if department heads have access to a video phone, they would be able to video conference in to City Hall meetings — particularly last-minute meetings — eliminating the need to drive during work hours to and from City Hall. Gamino said that if department heads leave their office during work hours to attend a meeting at City Hall, they’re also not available to the public when they come in to ask questions.

For department heads who drive city vehicles, video conferencing for a meeting instead of driving would reduce fuel costs and reduce wasted time, he said.

“If you’re in City Hall, it’s not too bad to ride the elevator to another floor, but if you’re the fire chief or police chief across town, it’s a terrible consumption of time to come to a meeting, even when it’s planned,” Gamino said.

Sarah Rich, Staff Writer Sarah Rich  |  Staff Writer

In 2008, Sarah Rich graduated from California State University, Chico, where she majored in news-editorial journalism and minored in sociology. Since 2010, Sarah has written for Government Technology magazine and covers a spectrum of public-sector IT topics, including cloud computing, transparency, broadband, and other innovative projects and trends. She currently lives in Sacramento, Calif.