On Call

Providence City Council members’ cell phones cost taxpayers big bucks

For more than a decade, it was a perk that had largely flown under the public radar: Use of a city-issued cell phone for every member of the Providence City Council, if they wanted one. That, on top of an average $19,000 yearly medical benefits and a pension (in some cases two) if they wanted in on it. All for a part-time job.
The cell phones, which have morphed into Smart Phones with full internet and email access, cost taxpayers an average $100 per month per line as part of a family plan for the dozen city council members who have opted to take them, plus six city council office staffers. The total bill in April was $21,600. A dozen of the 15 council members have a city phone. The other three — including Council President Michael Solomon — use their own, at their own expense.
They became an issue this past winter when the council’s newest member, Carmen Castillo, turned a few heads in the city council office when she racked up close to $1,500 in extra charges in just four months. Castillo won a special election last fall to fill the seat of the late Miguel Luna.
“Sometimes I get 200 calls in a day and for the first couple of months, I say ‘Oh my God this is crazy,’” Castillo said in an interview with the Hummel Report. The councilwoman wound up reimbursing the city $832 for what she determined to be personal calls.
So what happened?
Castillo said when her line was added to the council’s “family plan” of minutes, she was not included in the pool, which meant each call she made or received cost money. She also had transferred her personal cell phone number — the one everyone had for her as a contact — to the city phone, including family and friends, some of whom are in the Dominican Republic. And those international calls added up quickly.
Hummel: Did you have any discussion with anybody in the city that you really need to separate personal, business, potentially long-distance oversees?
Castillo: Not really. But you know, when I decided to take my personal phone, it’s (confusing) to get (a) different number.
Hummel: Was it a lot of calls? Was it calls out of the United States? How did it add up to hundreds of dollars of charges?
Castillo: First of all, when I get my phone, I’m not in the same plan for the city council. My minutes, if you pass a certain number of minutes you can get really get really, really expensive minutes. The most money is the city don’t put me in the same thing with the other city councilors.
Hummel: You weren’t in the big family plan.
Castillo: I’m out.
Hummel: You were part of the family, but you really weren’t part of the family
Castillo: Exactly.
The larger issue is whether Providence city council members should have taxpayer-funded phones at all. The Hummel Report spoke with every member on the council, and they defended the use, saying it is a necessary tool, especially those who are not given office space or voicemail at City Hall.
“My phone is my office,’’ first-term councilwoman Sabina Matos told us. “I believe we do need it. That’s how we communicate with the constituents. As long as we’re using it the right way and as long as we have a plan that doesn’t allow for abuse, we do need the cell phone. If we didn’t have the cell phone we should have a voicemail system set up in the city that we could check.”
Wilbur Jennings, also a first-term councilman said: “If there’s any emergency in my ward, or an emergency in general, they can always have access to me and get in touch with me.”
Hummel: Should the council be doing this when we’re in such tough budget times? What would your answer to that be?
Jennings: Well I tell you what. I’ll tell them: ‘We’re doing this for. We’re doing this for the people out there, for the taxpayers, it isn’t about doing anything personal for me or for my wife my brother, son or daughter.’ We’re doing it for the taxpayers and that’s what it really comes down to.
City Council President Michael Solomon was elected in 2006.
“They told me that I’d have a cell phone made available to me and at the time I didn’t think I needed one with my business and I have a plan that has plenty of minutes on it so I decided not to take the cell phone,’’ he said.
But Solomon doesn’t begrudge his fellow members using the city-issued phone, saying it’s a sign of the times.
“I think the council members put a lot of time in and some of them that’s their bloodline to their constituents. I think, obviously, it’s a tool you need. You wouldn’t ask a carpenter to go build a house and not give him a hammer, so I think it’s just one of the tools the council members use to keep in touch with their constituents.”

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