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Mayor, comptroller use same audit to spar anew over phone system

Inside City Hall: Rawlings-Blake and Pratt accuse each other of wasting taxpayers’ money.

Above: In a Brew file photo from last summer, Comptroller Joan Pratt hoists a pricey telephone she says was improperly installed in City Hall by the mayor’s office.

Frost returned to City Hall today, not in the form of a winter-storm-that-wasn’t, but in an exchange of icy press releases and fresh allegations between City Comptroller Joan Pratt and the staff of Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.

In the latest round of a nearly year-long fight, the mayor’s aides alleged in a two-page memo that “over $1 million in possible savings” could be made if Pratt ceased “wasteful and duplicative practices” at the Municipal Telephone Exchange.

The aides cited an audit by HPA Consulting Group of Rochester, N.Y., that was commissioned by the comptroller. The report cites potential savings of $300,000 to $700,000 – based on HPA’s experience with other clients that indicate that 15% to 40% of the telephone lines in Baltimore’s system could be disconnected.

“However,” the audit continued, “until this phase [of investigation] is actually started and underway, no definitive estimate of savings can be forecast.” It cited up to $200,000 in additional potential savings through a mix of strategies, including renegotiating some phone contracts with Verizon.

Billing in “Excellent Condition”

But the same audit – if one reads through the full report – was also quite complimentary of the way the comptroller’s office manages the city’s thousands of phones and lines.

Looking at its billing practices, the audit found virtually no errors and concluded that “the City of Baltimore’s invoices are actually in excellent condition.”

According to the report, “The amount of errors found by HPA is much smaller than we have found with other government customers. The City’s telecom services are better managed and are much healthier than most government entities that HPA has audited in the past.”

Dueling Press Release

Not surprisingly, Comptroller Pratt chose to highlight this part of HPA’s report in her own press release this afternoon, designed to counter the mayor’s material.

Pratt said she intends to implement the consultant’s recommendations when Phase 2 of its study is completed in order to “benefit the city and maximize savings.”

Then taking a jab at the mayor, the comptroller said that $400,000 a month could be saved “immediately” if the city implemented the Voice-Over Internet Protocol (VOIP) plan she negotiated with IBM, which was vetoed by the mayor last July.

Rawlings-Blake wants the Mayor’s Office of Information Technology (MOIT) to assume the responsibilities of the Municipal Telephone Exchange, which has been part of the comptroller’s office since the 1940s.

The mayor has been trying to get Pratt to sign a Memorandum of Understanding to share telecommunication improvements with MOIT. The document, which Pratt has refused to sign, would establish a committee that would implement a “Telecommunications Improvement and Procurement Project” and “create a new procurement for a VOIP solution.”

MOIT Director Chris Tonjes would head the new committee “with final decision-making authority,” and Pratt’s appointee would serve as “vice chairperson in the absence of the chairperson.”

In a letter released today, Pratt accused Tonjes of not responding to her request for information, including over his allegation that her office wastes money on “phantom phone lines.”

Positions Have Re-hardened

Back in December, it appeared that both sides were edging toward a compromise, with Pratt and Rawlings-Blake saying they were speaking again to each other – and, in the mayor’s words, “working together.”

Such cooperation has apparently ceased. In an interview today, Pratt pointedly said she had not recently talked to the mayor about the VOIP impasse.

Absent any agreement, Pratt is blocked from winning approval of her VOIP plan by virtue of the mayor’s lock on the Board of Estimates, while Rawlings-Blake is also stymied.

Mayoral spokesman Ian Brennan described Pratt as “an independently elected official. We do not have control of the phones whatsoever.”

Asked why the mayor wants to take the system out of Pratt’s hands, Brennan said, “We know there is a less expensive way.”
ALSO SEE: Inside City Hall: Seven lessons to take away from “phonegate”


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