San Francisco dials back cellphone bills from $3M high 

Only a few years ago, it appeared San Francisco city workers’ runaway cellphone costs would only grow worse.

City workers’ bills nearly doubled in a four-year span to a high of $3.3 million in 2008, and efforts to reduce costs had proven difficult.

In November 2009, then-Mayor Gavin Newsom said he was “frustrated” over how much The City was spending on cellphone use and his inability to cut costs.

But The City has found a way to bring down those charges. Last fiscal year, $2.2 million was spent on cellphones, according to the Department of Technology. Since the peak of $3.3 million, the charges have gradually decreased each year. They include cellphones and other wireless services, such as for an iPad. There are 5,318 wireless devices in use by city workers.

Cellphone usage was rife with extra charges. Back in 2009, one city worker racked up $571.90 in roaming charges — other bills soared when free minutes expired, and some city workers kept calling 411 even though they were being charged for the use. There were numerous cases where devices were being paid for but going unused. One cellphone user racked up a bill of $1,500 while using a cellphone during
international travels.
 
Political pressure was mounting to bring down costs as San Francisco faced budget deficits.

“It’s just basically optimization,” Ron Vinson, director of media for the Department of Technology, said about how the bills decreased.

The department inventoried devices in use, increased monitoring, ensured city workers were using the right plans to avoid overages and sudden spikes in bills, and inactivity was red-flagged. In addition to those efforts, competition among telecommunication companies and the evolution of the service plans they offered helped reduce costs.  

Each city department also has a telephone administrator, a position created about three years ago, according to Vinson, who can track usage on a Web-based program.

Starting this fiscal year, The City is paying about $170,000 a month on cellphone bills. And that is a good place to be, according to Vinson.

“We’re happy where we are,” he said, adding that the department continues its close monitoring of usage and does a comprehensive accounting every quarter. The department just noticed $5,000 worth of costs for unused devices and notified the departments to look into it.

“The City has done an amazing job at right-sizing plan costs for a city our size,” Vinson said.

jsabatini@sfexaminer.com

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