Dialing Your Dollars

You say you haven't got a cellular phone? Heck, you own hundreds of 'em! And right now some local bureaucrat is using one to make a hairdressing appointment.

Billy Hardemon was on the phone, and Billy Hardemon sounded...well, he sounded worried. "I understand you've been looking at my cellular phone records," fretted Metro Commissioner James Burke's chief of staff. "I just want you to know up-front that this office operates by the book."

While it is certainly understandable that a chief of staff would want to safeguard himself against unfounded attacks in the press, there was something a tad curious about Hardemon's unsolicited call. Namely, it was late May, and New Times had yet to inspect any of his records. In fact the ink on the public-records request for Hardemon's cellular phone bills had barely dried when County Attorney Robert Ginsburg, to whom the request was addressed, alertly suggested that a memo be sent to everyone whose records had been sought.

Sadly, Ginsburg's kind gesture did little to quell the anxiety of Hardemon and his peers. That a reporter might actually take the time to inspect how assorted muckety-mucks make use of their cell phones -- property for which taxpayers foot the bill -- did not sit well with them at all. Metro Commission Chairman Art Teele accused New Times of harassment. Carmen Lunetta, director of the Port of Miami, cried witch-hunt. Sergeant at arms Jim Zanconata, whose job it is to provide transportation and security for Metro commissioners, didn't strain for semantics; he threatened bodily harm if his name were to appear in print.

After weeks of pawing through itemized bills, we'd have to agree that a little defensiveness was probably appropriate: Records show that Dade Countians annually shell out thousands upon thousands of dollars to subsidize personal phone calls made by elected officials and public workers. To family. To friends. To hairdressers. Heck, even to the Florida Lottery Player Information line.

It's hard to blame the politicians and bureaucrats for their itchy dialing fingers, though. Because as far as we could discern, there is no rule that forbids county employees making personal calls. Though there does seem to be some vague sense among county staff that they ought to pay for personal calls, the county has no formal reimbursement process and provides almost nothing in the way of oversight. The detailed bills that would allow for auditing are difficult -- often impossible -- to track down. (Billy Hardemon will be thrilled to learn that Dade County keeps no itemized breakdown of his monthly bills, which have run as high as $400.)

Well, the county may not care much about personal calls, but we do. Because the money they spend on cellular phones -- nearly one million dollars per year -- is supplied by us, the taxpayers. The phones themselves belong to us; they're public property. And the bills we examined are public record.

Our survey was by no means exhaustive. Spotty might be a better word, actually, given the difficulty of locating bills. But it should be enough to suggest what happens when you distribute free cellular phones to 900 people -- with no visible purse strings attached.

A little context might prove instructive before we name names. Let's start at the beginning, with the cellular phone itself. What a quintessentially Eighties invention: a phallic symbol that simultaneously asserts productivity and status.

Cell phones (also known as mobiles) are, in essence, high-tech walkie-talkies that have been integrated into the telephone system. Whereas conventional phone lines transmit along a network of cables, cell phones use radio waves. There was a time not long ago when cellular phones were a rarity, big and clunky and expensive. As the phones grew sleeker and less expensive, however, their cachet soared. In sprawling South Florida, a busy executive might spend hours in traffic between meetings, hours he could now use to receive or return calls.

Hurricane Andrew marked a watershed. The storm destroyed standard phone lines, often leaving cellulars as the only available form of communication. All of a sudden, nobody wanted to be without a mobile, and soon South Florida boasted the highest rate of ownership in the nation. The county, needless to say, did its part. In January 1992, 315 cellular phones were available for the use of county personnel. As of April 1995, there were 914.

Compared to standard phone lines, mobiles carry a steep price, from 20 to 26 cents per minute for local calls, depending on whether the call is made during "peak" business hours. What's more, because cellular users are paying for airtime, an equivalent fee is incurred to receive calls. Long-distance calls made on a cellular cost the standard rate negotiated by the county, usually between 35 and 55 cents per minute. But the rate for "roamer" calls -- those made by a user who has traveled with her phone to another city -- run up to one dollar per minute.

How much of your money is Dade County spending? In January 1993, the county's total monthly bill was $40,870, according to Dade's Information and Technology Department (ITD). By September of that year, the monthly tally had risen to $71,000. This past December, with the help of the Summit of the Americas, the county racked up a whopping $102,000 bill. The annual tab from April 1994 through March 1995 was $875,000 -- just for airtime, which doesn't include the $350 to $530 shelled out to buy each phone.

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