Watching office expenses does make difference

An audit of state government found about 20 percent of cellphone expenses — $1.8 million — were unnecessary.

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Less than two decades ago cellphones were incredibly expensive to own and even more expensive to use.

Today, nearly everybody has a cellphone with unlimited calling, unlimited texting and unlimited data for a relatively reasonable price - generally under $100 a month and sometimes much less depending on the number of cellphones in the household.

The price has dropped dramatically because technology improved, making the purchase of cellphones more affordable. When more people had cellphones the monthly fee was reduced because cellphone-service providers could make even more profit on volume sales. Plus, consumers got savvy. They started shopping around for the best plans. Competition worked to the consumers' advantage.

Why then was the state of Washington paying outrageous amounts of money for cellphones, many of which were rarely used or not used at all?

Simple. It's human nature.

When you are responsible for actually paying the bills you tend to be far more aware of what is being spent, whether it is at home or on the job.

And the reality is many government employees - even those who are outstanding stewards of public dollars - simply don't pay as close attention as they should to what government is paying for things such as cellphone service.

A state audit released in November looked at 89 state agencies. It found the state spent about $9.2 million on about 22,000 wireless devices in a single year. Auditors identified some 6,700 devices, with an annual cost of $1.8 million, that were used sparingly or not at all.

The Department of Social and Health Services deactivated more than 700 phones prior to the audit's release and another 400 since the audit came out, The Associated Press reported. Agency spokesman Thomas Shapley said, the audit did lead to better awareness of the issue.

Ironically, the tables have been turned on the state Auditor's Office by The Associated Press recently when it reviewed two years of agency wireless records, released under state public records laws. And Auditor Brian Sonntag was one of the culprits, according to AP. Sonntag used only 10 minutes of billed call time in the span of 16 months and recorded zero calls in 12 of the billing cycles, even though the state was paying close to $60 each month for a plan giving him 400 minutes of call time.

Sonntag is a wonderful public servant. He and his staff have been tigers in regard to making sure tax dollars are spent wisely.

But, like all public (and private) workers, he becomes so busy doing day-to-day work that he doesn't think about his cellphone bill. Generally that only dawns on folks when they pay the bill.

Sonntag's office has done tremendous service to the state in bringing the issue of unnecessary cellphone expense to light. Every state office - including the Auditor's Office - needs to keep a close eye on these types of expenses. If it's a part of one person's job in each office to track such things, it will save millions.

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