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Debbie Dujanovic reporting
Produced by Nishi Gupta"I would call this an extravagance, an unnecessary taxpayer expense."
One bill at a time, cell phone costs stack up. Where does government draw the line when taxpayers are picking up the tab?
Cell phone bills can take a chunk out of a government budget. Are officials watching the costs, the calls, and the plans? We found out, some are, some aren't.
Throw money away on your cell phone bill? You watch your plan.
"So I don't go over my minutes or have to pay more in fees."
So you wouldn't want to see government agencies paying too much for cell phones.
"I wouldn't like it, not as a taxpayer."
We wondered if cities are keeping their cell phone costs in check. We analyzed stacks of bills, tracked hundreds of calls, taking a random sampling of five city councils.
Where should government draw the line on calls, costs, and cell phone plans?
Howard Stephenson, President, Utah Taxpayers Association: "It's questionable as to whether taxpayers should be paying for those plans in the first place.
Riverton and Taylorsville, for example, don't issue city council members cell phones at all. Sandy City: no cell phones. Salt Lake City gives members a flat rate: 50-dollars a month to cover calls to city hall and constituents.
We took one look at West Valley City, and decided we had to dig deeper. The city's 3-year cell-phone budget: 466-thousand.
How's it adding up?
We focused on the six city council members. All have cell phones. Taxpayers pick up the tab. Bills can run up to one-hundred and seventy-five dollars a month. A red flag for the Utah Taxpayers Association.
Howard Stephenson, President, Utah Taxpayers Association: "West Valley City's practice is totally out of the norm."
Stephenson says it's out of line. West Valley's City manager says it isn't.
Wayne Pyle, West Valley City Manager: Are we doing a good job in my opinion? We are. Absolutely. Is there room for improvement for us to improve our services and cut expenses? Always."
So could the city save thousands of dollars on cheaper plans?
The city buys council members huge blocks of air time. Expensive plans that give them up to 2-thousand minutes a month to talk. We discovered 60-thousand unused minutes for the 6-months we looked at. In all, the council is using only 25-percent of the minutes its buying. We showed West Valley.
Wayne Pyle, West Valley City Manager: "First off, I don't know if 75-percent of the minutes aren't being used, I don't know if that's something you calculated or what."
The city didn't -- we did.
Council woman Carolynn Burt is careful with her phone. She talks an average of 53-minutes a month. Problem is: West Valley has her on a 2-thousand minute plan.. Using a little, cost taxpayers a lot. In July, her airtime ran: 6-dollars and 81 cents a minute.
Even though they aren't using all their minutes, they're using plenty to call family and friends. We found, one council member called family long distance 119 times on her cell phone. Another who used it to call family and for his personal job - 150-times.
Margaret Petersen, West Valley City Council: "We have a plan that allows an overall block of time as long as we're within that time then it's legally appropriate that we use the phone if we have to call our children."
Joel Coleman, West Valley City Council: "A lot of times citizens will call home and then my wife will call me and I’ll go back and forth with her."
It's fair to point out that West Valley has brought down it's cell phone costs 8 percent in the last three years.
And as far as council members go, none of them are violating city policy.
In fact, one council woman says in the 5-years she's had a phone, she's never seen a bill. This story raised her awareness, and she wants to make sure the city's done it's homework.