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A Hummel Report Investigation

Communication Breakdown

City Council members in Providence receive a yearly salary, health care benefits and a pension if they want in on it - and something that until recently has flown largely under the public radar: a Smart Phone, courtesy of the taxpayers. But Jim Hummel finds officials are taking a closer look at the cell phone program after one council member racked up more than $800 in personal calls.

 

SCRIPT

If you're on the city council in Providence you get a yearly salary, a pension and health care - and until recently something that has flown largely under the public radar: a city-issued Smart Phone.

It is a tradition that goes back a decade or more: new council members are offered use of a cell phone, courtesy of the taxpayers. And those we spoke with say they'd have a hard time doing their council job without it.

Matos: ``My phone is my office.''

Jennings: ``If there's any emergency in my ward, or an emergency in general, they can always have access to me and get in touch with me.''

Hassett: ``It gives you the flexibility and it's also an efficient way to communicate.''

Twelve of the 15 members on the council take a city-issued phone. Three use - and pay for - their own phones, including Council President Michael Solomon, Councilmen Sam Zurier and David Salvatore.

The cost of those dozen phones, plus half a dozen for city council staff members that are part of a Verizon family plan, is about $1,800 a month, or $21,600 a year. That works out to roughly $100 a month for each phone.

As recently as six months ago the monthly bill was close to $2,700, or $32,400 yearly for 23 phones, until the council chief of staff found the council was paying for some phones that were not needed, or not being used. So he got rid of 5 phones.

City Council President Michael Solomon was elected in 2006.

Solomon: ``They told me that I'd have a cell phone made available to me and at the time I didn't  think I needed one with my business and I have a plan that has plenty of minutes on it so I decided not to take the cell phone.''

But Solomon doesn't begrudge his fellow members using the city-issued phone, saying it's a sign of the times.

Solomon: ``I think the council members put a lot of time in and some of them that's their bloodline to their constituents; they spend a lot of time on those phones. This job is tough as it is so obviously any tools you can give to make it a little easier, we try to help out.''

The Hummel Report contacted every member of the council and found that all but Councilman Terry Hassett have their own personal phones as well.

And all but Councilman Kevin Jackson have Smart Phones - from Droids to Blackberrys and IPhones -  that allow them internet and email access.

The phone plan provides every member an average of 1,000 minutes a month and council staff tell the Hummel Report members never exceeded the total pool of minutes - until last year when Councilwoman Carmen Castillo - who was elected to replace the late Miguel Luna-  racked up nearly $1,500 in charge in just four months.

Castillo: ``Sometimes I get 200 calls in a day and for the first couple of months, I say `Oh my God this is crazy.'''

In an interview last week with The Hummel Report Castillo said she transferred the number on her personal phone to the city phone - meaning that constituents, friends, and family from outside the country were calling her - and she calling them at times at city expense. Compounding the problem: her phone was not initially part of the family plan of minutes, meaning many of her calls were costing 15 cents a minute.

Hummel: ``Did you have any discussion about - you really need to separate personal, business, potentially long-distance oversees, did you have any discussion with anybody in the city about that?''

Castillo: ``Not really. But you know when I decided to take my personal phone, it's (confusing) to get (a) different number.''

Hummel: ``Was it a lot of calls, was it calls out of the United States? How did it add up to hundreds of dollars of charges?"

Castillo: ``First of all when I get my phone, I'm not in the same plan for the city council.

My minutes, if you pass a certain number of minutes you can get really get really, really expensive minutes. The most money is the city don't put me in the same thing with the other city councilors.''

Hummel: ``You weren't in the big family plan.''

Castillo: ``I'm out.''

Hummel: ``You were part of the family, but you really weren't part of the family."

Castillo: ``Exactly.''

As a result Castillo reimbursed the city for $832 and has since been added into the council plan. She's also gotten a second phone for personal calls.

So what about city-funded cell phones for the council members, who also receive a salary of -$18,765  a year; $20,850 a year for leadership position? Every member also takes advantage of a city health plan and many are enrolled in the pension plan.

Hummel: ``We're in tough budget times we have to cut back on a lot of things. Is this a luxury, is it a tool you actually need?"

Solomon: ``I think obviously it's a tool you need - you wouldn't ask a carpenter to go build a house and not give him a hammer so I think it's just one of the tools the council members use to keep in touch with their constituents."

Councilman Wilbur Jennings is in his first term - and puts his  cell number on his council business card.

Hummel: ``Should the council be doing this when we're in such tough budget times? What would your answer to that be?"

Jennings: ``Well I tell you what. I'll tell them: `We're doing this for. We're doing this for the people out there, for the taxpayers, it ain't about doing anything  personal for me or for my wife my brother, son or daughter.' We're doing it for the taxpayers and that's what it really comes down to."

Councilman Terry Hassett said Providence has a $600 plus million annual budget.

Hummel: ``What would you say to the person who says: why does a city councilman need a cell phone paid for by the taxpayers?

Hassett: ``It could be the mayor calling, a department director, fellow council member at lunch time - what about this? How about if we do this? So you have these kind of quick calls, but a lot of them you get in-depth, in-depth discussion, philosophical - where do you stand on this that kind of thing. And it's instrumental it's a great instrument to have as a councilman."

And first-term Councilwoman Sabina Matos said the majority of council members don't have offices at City Hall or voicemail.

Hummel: ``What about the critic who would say in these really tight times other councils don't do it - is this something they really need? How do you respond to that?"

Matos: ``I believe we do need it,  that's how we communicate with the constituents. As long as we're using it the right way and as long as we have a plan that doesn't allow for abuse, we do need the cell phone. If we didn't have the cell phone we should have a voicemail system set up in the city that we could check."

Solomon says the Castillo issue has resulted in his office taking a closer look at the phone plan and the expenses.

Solomon: ``They're not to make personal phones calls on the cell phones and if they do they're going to have to reimburse the city for those personal calls, so everybody is aware that cell phone is used strictly for city purpose. Now do we go and monitor every single phone call, we don't do that."

Hummel: ``Do you ever see the bill?''

Hassett: ``No, but now as a result of this, focusing on this, it's not a bad thing it's a good thing, you're using tax dollars to use it, that I'd like to see what the bill is."

Hummel: ``How do we fix it going forward? Or has it been fixed in your mind?"

Castillo: ``I'm a taxpayer too because I'm the working person and I need to pay taxes for my car and my house, so I'm the taxpayer so I don't want to abuse the taxpayer."
In Providence Jim Hummel, for The Hummel Report.

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