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Sunday, August 14, 2011

Nashua taxpayers spend thousands for city employees’ phones

NASHUA – Who is the chattiest Cathy in the city?

That would be Ken Lowe, who works at the wastewater treatment facility.

Texting Tommy? Well, that title changes hands month to month.

But the undisputed data champion of city employees: Patricia Croocker in the city’s health department is the hands-down winner.

The ubiquity of cell phones – phones both smart and of average intelligence – in daily life is mirrored by Nashua’s army of public employees.

The city, including the Police Department, which has a separate wireless contract, spends around $3,000 a month on Verizon Wireless and Sprint cell phones and Blackberrys.

The school department spends another $2,000-$2,500, according to a search of city and school billing records for January-April.

At that rate, taxpayers would spend more than $60,000 on city-owned cell phones annually.

The city spent another $16,000 in fiscal 2011 reimbursing employees who use personal phones for business purposes, according to Mayor Donnalee Lozeau.

Since Lozeau uses her personal cell phone, public records don’t show who’s on her most-called list.

The four months of city cell-phone bills reviewed by The Telegraph reveal who uses their phones how and how much.

Lowe, the collection system foreman at the Department of Public Works wastewater treatment facility, is on the phone a lot. He topped 2,000 minutes twice – 2,011 in February and 2,265 in April – in the four months and was just below that in the other months: 1,877 in January and 1,698 in March.

Despite his propensity for being on the phone, Lowe didn’t return calls seeking comment.

Croocker, an emergency preparedness coordinator in the Department of Health, has two devices. She carries a Blackberry and also a wireless Internet card that allows her to access the Web anywhere there’s a cell signal.

Croocker used the most kilobytes of data during each of the four months, usually around 1.3 or 1.4 million kilobytes, and 3.7 million in January. Croocker, whose position is funded by a grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said the devices are more than convenient; in many ways, they’re required for someone in her position.

One of the components of the grant that pays her salary is that she help establish redundant forms of communication and is capable of contacting city and state emergency officials during an emergency.

“Really, it falls back to redundant communication and accessibility,” Croocker said. “One of the means to do that is to have an Internet connection.”

Croocker was at a conference in New Jersey when the H1N1 flu scare broke two years ago. She was able to use her Blackberry to easily stay up to date via e-mail and get conference call information while on the road because of the Internet capability of her phone, she said.

During an emergency, Croocker needs to be able not just to call other officials, but to participate in online forums with community agencies, such as local hospitals and the United Way, and access the state Department of Health and Human Services inventory system, a Web-based application that allows the city to order emergency supplies during a disaster.

Then there’s the fact that she works in towns throughout Greater Nashua coordinating emergency preparedness plans, and therefore does a lot of her work away from the office and its land-line Internet hookup.

“On a day-to-day basis, (not having a cellphone) would bog down the efficiency of the program,” Croocker said. “In an emergency, it would definitely limit our ability to respond quickly and appropriately.

“It really allows us to be more mobile and deployable rapidly.”

Another emergency services employee topped the list of most expensive phones. Fire Chief Brian Morrissey’s Blackberry cost the city around $90 a month in March and April.

“It’s just become a piece of equipment that’s more or less essential in my position,” Morrissey said. “I’m available most days 24 hours a day. It makes our ability to make good and quality decisions a lot easier.

“It just makes it easier to keep in communication as emergency services require.”

Morrissey said he can access the department’s computer-assisted dispatching system through his phone. He also gets updates from the deputy chiefs on emergency scenes via e-mail.

“They keep me up to date on stuff that’s happening in real time,” he said. “It’s become just a piece of equipment that we rely on to get real-time information as quickly as possible.”

Transportation Department manager Mark Sousa’s phone was the most expensive in the remaining two months of the Telegraph’s review, January and February. He also sent the most text messages in January, with 247.

Sousa, who supervises transit and parking employees, said sending text messages to his far-flung employees just makes sense.

“We use that medium as a way to get back-and-forth communicating between the staff and me,” Sousa said in a phone message. “The reason that we use texting is that it’s easier.”

Sousa said texting is a particularly useful way for him to stay in touch when he’s in meetings and can’t talk on the phone.

“We let them know if there’s a meter down, then they let me know, text me back, when the meter’s fixed so we can let City Hall know or whoever made the complaint,” he said.

The heavy users aren’t the only city employees with phones, though. The city and Police Department own about 90 cell phones and Blackberrys. The school department owns another 80.

Some employees – around 40 – are allowed to use their own phones and are reimbursed in their paychecks. The city pays $17 a month for a cell phone and $50 a month for a smartphone – lowered this year from $80 a month for smartphones, Lozeau said.

Employees who have city-owned phones aren’t supposed to use them for personal business if possible. If they do, the employee has to fill out a reconciliation sheet that looks like a checkbook balance sheet and reimburse the city for the personal use of the phone.

Lozeau said department heads review the bills, as does the purchasing department, to make sure any abuse is kept to a minimum.

“When you have something like this, you know there’s going to be abuse,” she said. “So, you try to put in a check-and-balance system.”

Employees reimbursed the city about $500 for personal use of city phones last year, Lozeau said.

Both options require employees to fill out an application stating why they need the phone – because their job requires significant travel, frequent time out of the office or availability after hours – and have it approved by their supervisor. The application is then sent to the mayor.

“We’re very careful about how we do that,” Lozeau said. “People shouldn’t get a cell phone just because they want one. It really has to be position dependent.”

Joseph G. Cote can be reached at 594-6415 or jcote@nashuatelegraph.com. Also, check Cote out on Twitter (@Telegraph_JCote).