In the past, some Lodi employees have used their city-issued cell phones to make personal calls while roaming on vacation. Others have texted or sent pictures and videos. Some have even called 411.
All on the city's dime.
But that is all coming to an end after the Lodi City Council approved a new cell phone policy. City staff hopes to eliminate personal use and reduce the number of phones throughout the city.
In December, City Manager Rad Bartlam assigned city spokesman Jeff Hood to review city records to find out how often employees are using their phone and if there can be any reductions.
- Using a random sampling of calls in the Lodi Police Department, Hood said 48 percent of the calls made were personal.
- Two Electric Utility employees took their phones on vacation, accruing about 100 minutes each in roaming fees.
- One Electric Utility employee managed to rack up phone bills over three months totaling $719, including one $367 bill. During that month, the employee went 627 minutes over the plan, sent 1,232 texts and made nine calls to 411 to find out information.
Hood attributes many of these issues to the city not having a policy holding employees accountable.
"A lot of people are not aware that texting costs money. Most employees didn't see their bills," Hood said.
The city spent $131,104 from July 2009 through June 2010 on cell phones. The city is currently paying for 197 cell phones, including 37 smartphones with Internet, messaging and email.
In January, Bartlam told employees to stop using their phone for personal use, and there has already been a 15 percent reduction in the call volume, Hood said.
Lodi is not the first to look at cell phone costs. As Gov. Jerry Brown's first executive order in January, he required state agency and department heads to collect half of the state's cell phones — 48,000 — and turn them in by June 1.
Lodi Unified School District has also recently eliminated 59 district-funded phones.
The Lodi City Council approved the new policy in February. Department heads will review every cell phone in the city, and must prove it is an essential part of the jobs. Through this process, some phones could be eliminated or their plans could be reduced, Hood said.
"We will be saving thousands of dollars, no question. It's also giving us a chance to reassess the need for having the amount of phones that we do," he said.
While studying the records, Hood found that some of phones were used sparingly and could be on a pay-by-the-minute plan to reduce costs.
For those who do need a phone, they will need to reimburse the city for any personal use on the cell phone, even if it doesn't result in extra charges. Employees will be responsible for reviewing their bills and marking any personal calls that they will then have to reimburse.
The other option is for employees to turn in their phones, use their personal phones for business and receive a stipend of up to $25 for a cell phone and $50 for a smartphone.
But some are questioning whether a comprehensive policy is required. While no one in his bargaining group has a cell phone, Lodi Professional Firefighters president Brad Doell said he shares the same sentiments as other city employees.
"Maybe the policy in its entirety wasn't necessary," Doell said. "Maybe there was a handful of people who needed to be talked to about their usage, as opposed to a blanket policy that affects everyone."
He has already noticed a difference in the fire department. Before, firefighters on duty would call the fire battalion chiefs when they are off duty to ask questions when a piece of equipment was broken or something else came up. Now, most of the chiefs turn off their phone when they are not working, Doell said.
Since cell phone plans have come down in price over the years, resident Ed Miller questions why the city cannot get unlimited plans, or at least plans that do not have expensive charges for going over the allotted minutes.
As a regular at council meetings and a representative for Lodi's Tea Party chapter, Lodi Citizens in Action, Miller said he is still trying to decide whether the issue is a mountain or a mole hill.
"Some of the logic they were using and worries about the costs were somewhat dated. You would think the city would have enough bargaining power to have unlimited voice service with some restrictions on data," Miller said.
The police department and the electric utility already require employees to reimburse for some of the costs if they goes over their plan limits. In fiscal year 2009 to 2010, the police department reimbursed the city $3,500.
As president of the Lodi Police Officers Association, Paul Blandford said police employees will adhere to the new policy, and he is glad all departments will have to reimburse for personal calls.
"It will be effective as far as reducing the cell phone expenses, and the entire city will be accountable now, instead of certain segments," he said.
Texting will also be reduced under the plan, although some departments use it to perform their job duties.
Police officers are often on 10-hour shifts, and do not know when they will have breaks, Hood said. Sometimes they are on a stakeout where they can't receive calls, so texting is useful. They also might text with informants or community members.
Oftentimes, if there is a late arrest or booking interview or something else happens late in an officer's shift, they will have to stay late, Blandford said. Employees often make calls to arrange for childcare or have someone else pick up their kids from football practice, he said.
People in the community will also ask officers to just make a call as opposed to go to a caller's house, so the department uses the phones for that too, he said.
In Public Works, picture texting is often used to ask for advice. If someone is on a utility poll or opening a transformer, they can text a supervisor a picture if they run into a problem or need a replacement part, Swimley said.
"A supervisor can answer that question right there and save a trip into the field," Swimley said.
Employees can also send photos of wiring schematics or technical data sheets to manufacturers to get advice.
The department also has a high call volume because often they are communicating with dispatch or in different pieces of equipment talking to each other.
"We are trying to use the technology where we can," Swimley said.