Between September 2017 and this February, Baltimore City agencies paid $108,451.80 for phone lines that were never installed or were inactive, according to a report released yesterday by the Office of the Inspector General.
The OIG found that the Municipal Telephone Exchange billed agencies for 204 unused lines, representing about three-quarters of the city’s total.
Baltimore Police were billed for 96 phone lines that were never installed or not in service, costing the agency about $45,000. The Finance and Health departments were each billed for 27 phantom lines, costing each agency between $14,000 and $15,000.
An additional $5,811 was charged to the mayor’s office for 10 nonexistent lines.
After Inspector General Isabel Mercedes Cumming requested immediate action to correct these “irregular billing practices,” the Municipal Telephone Exchange refunded the mayor’s office and didn’t bill for some of the lines in February.
But Cumming’s office found that MTE, which is part of City Comptroller Joan Pratt’s office, resumed billing in March and April for some of those lines, resulting in roughly $8,000 in costs to taxpayers, and has not refunded the vast majority of the lines.
The inspector general’s ongoing investigation represents a new chapter in the drama around the city’s phone system, which dates back to 2012, when Pratt and former Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake clashed over whose office should be in charge of the transition to Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) phone lines.
The report comes at a time when Pratt, who is running for her seventh term in office (she was first elected comptroller in 1995), has been under a cloud of investigations.
Among them: money laundering at a clothing store she previously co-owned with former mayor Catherine Pugh, alleged conflicts of interest in her Board of Estimates votes, deceptive campaign practices against her primary opponent, and a federal probe of labor policies at her office.
Pratt Disputes Findings
Pratt disputed yesterday’s findings as “inaccurate.”
She said agencies have budget analysts to review expenses and are responsible for requesting service stoppages. She said the city’s move to VoIP service has allowed for better service at lower cost than the previous system.
“MTE billing is more accurate today with VoIP,” Pratt stated in a response to the OIG report. “However, accuracy in billing is dependent upon agency Telecom Coordinators providing timely service requests including requests for changes, adds or moves of telephone equipment. Regular review of the monthly bill . . . is imperative for the agencies.”
“Simply unplugging a phone does not stop the billing,” Pratt stated.
In response, Cumming said agencies had done more than unplug their phones, confirming to her office that 76% of the lines should be discontinued.
“Thus, the agencies elected to terminate billing service on all of the lines in question,” Cumming stated.
Find the report here.