Who's minding the cellular store?
Dec. 2, 2001
State agencies have reported to a legislative watchdog committee they are spending nearly $2 million a year on 3,441 cell phones with active calling plans. The Department of Transportation topped the list with 540 cell phones issued to its personnel, followed by Mississippi State University with 388. A dozen boards and commissions had one cell phone each.
Unlike the process in some other states, agencies in Mississippi make their own decisions on equipment and calling plans and, needless to say, have a broad range of choices. As the PEER Committee said in its report last week, the "state's interest in efficient and prudent use of cell phones is protected only insofar as each agency shows diligence and concern for protecting that interest. No state-level controls or policies specifically outline standards of need or appropriate use of state-owned cell phones."
The fundamental question is whether these phones are being used in an a efficient, responsible manner and, judging from PEER's report, there is simply no way to know.
What we do know is that, at an average of 22 cents a minute, the cost paid by Mississippi state government is a nickel to 12 cents a minute higher than neighboring states. Tennessee and Arkansas have one vendor, one plan and one fixed rate. In Mississippi, with a multitude of vendors, plans and service rates, costs range from 2 cents to $1.50 per minute.
Two cellular phone carriers dominate the Mississippi market with 80 percent of the state's business. Cingular has a 49 percent market share and Cellular South has 31 percent.
Only three of the 81 agencies surveyed were able to identity cost savings from the use of cell phones, and their collective savings amounted to $2,804.
PEER cautions that if the use of cell phones is not properly supervised by agency management, cellular telephones purchase by the state may be inappropriately used for personal business. Further, the large number of service plans available to agency users creates a situation where agency managers may not be aware of lower cost service.
PEER has made a number of good sense recommendations on using a single provider or a limited number of contracts in an attempt to reduce service costs. The committee has recommended that a written policy be instituted for all forms of wireless communication.
For a state as cash-strapped as Mississippi, and with dire predictions and financial warnings already issued for the next fiscal year, assessing the need for and monitoring the use of cell phones seems a prudent course of action.