Sedgwick County spent $440,152 on cellphone allowances for employees last year — far more than the city of Wichita and Johnson County.
Richard Ranzau, one of two county commissioners who doesn’t ask for a cellphone allowance, thinks the county needs to drastically reduce the money it gives employees to help them offset the business use of their personal cellphones.
“I think there’s some opportunity for savings there,” Ranzau said. “It’s taxpayer money.”
County Manager William Buchanan said a group of employees has been looking at the county’s cellphone spending and policies since the start of the year. He said there “absolutely” will be changes this year, necessitated by the county’s desire to get to a zero deficit by the end of next year.
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Cellphone use has changed a lot over the years, Buchanan noted.
“Twenty years ago, there were these giant phones that were handed out to a couple of people,” he said. “As the cellphone industry grew, it became apparent that this was going to be a tool for some folks.”As cellphone use grew, the county “started developing policies around necessity and around safety and smart ways of doing business,” Buchanan said.
Some employees, such as those who work with the mentally ill or in corrections, need cellphones for safety; others need them to communicate with managers or the public.
Several years ago, the county owned employees’ cellphones and paid the bills for them. Now employees buy and own their phones and get an allowance based on their estimate of how much they use that phone for business.
The allowances are calculated by taking the monthly bill multiplied by the percentage of business use multiplied by 12 months divided by 26 pay periods.
For example, if an employee’s monthly bill was $50, and he said he used his phone only for business, he would get a bi-weekly allowance of about $23.
The allowance goes directly onto the employee’s paycheck. At one time, the allowance was considered taxable, and the county added 25 percent to the allowance to cover the taxes. The IRS no longer considers the allowances taxable, and the county no longer adds 25 percent.
Each employee who gets an allowance must turn in a bill once a year showing the monthly charge. On the request form, the employee estimates the percentage of use for business. His or her supervisor and the division head reviews and approves the allowance.Treasurer Linda Kizzire had the highest cellphone allowance last year — $2,043 — records show.
Kizzire said she estimates that 80 percent of her cellphone use is for business. Although the county no longer owns phones, it does help pay for equipment if an employee gets an upgrade and asks that the county pay for part of it.
Equipment is paid at the same percentage as usage. In Kizzire’s case, the county paid for 80 percent of the cost for her to upgrade to a smart phone last year. She noted that her allowance is lower this year — about $49 bi-weekly compared with $70 bi-weekly last year.
Among commissioners, Dave Unruh had the highest allowance last year at $1,262. He estimated that he used 50 percent of his cellphone minutes for county business and 100 percent of the data plan on his smart phone for business. The second-highest allowance was that for Karl Peterjohn, who received $915. Peterjohn estimated the business use of his phone at 70 percent. Jim Skelton received an allowance of $881. His usage estimates were the same as Unruh’s.
Ranzau and board chairman Tim Norton did not ask for a cellphone allowance last year.
Rounding out elected officials were County Clerk Kelly Arnold, who received an allowance of $622 last year based on business use of 44.45 percent, and Sheriff Robert Hinshaw who received a flat bi-weekly allowance of $22.12. Employees in the sheriff’s office get a flat allowance.
Neither Register of Deeds Bill Meek nor District Attorney Nola Foulston requested a cellphone allowance last year.
The non-elected staff member with the highest cellphone allowance last year was Randy Duncan, the county’s emergency management director, at $1,554.
Buchanan, who ultimately will make the decision about who gets paid what, received $1,012 last year.The county paid cellphone allowances to 704 employees, including elected officials, last year. That’s up from 674 in 2009, when the total cost to the county was $390,046. The county has about 2,840 employees.
The average monthly allowance for employees last year was $52.10.
Ranzau thinks that’s too much.
“I don’t know that my whole bill is ($52),” he said.
Ranzau said he used to have 300 minutes a month on the cellphone he uses for work and personal use. He bumped it up to 1,200 minutes for an extra $10 a month, he said.
Norton said he doesn’t mind using his personal cellphone for county business.
“That’s part of my job, communicating and taking calls,” Norton said.
Unruh said he uses his cellphone a lot for work. He gets e-mails on it and keeps his calendar on it.
“I consider it a business tool,” he said.
Unruh said how the county handles cellphones “is a reasonable compromise to where the county is not providing cellphones for everyone. I guess everybody has a different level or percentage they think is business use.”
Peterjohn said he initially estimated his business use at 30 percent.
“But I was getting all these calls right and left, and I thought 70 percent was a better number,” he said. “It is somewhat subjective, and it does fluctuate a lot.”Other governmental bodies handle cellphones differently.
The city of Wichita spent $121,090 on cellphone allowances last year for 277 employees, including Wichita City Council members. The average allowance is about $36 a month. The city has just less than 3,000 employees.
City employees who qualify get monthly allowances of either $50 or $30. Council members get $50.
Most employees — 202 of the 277 — get a $30 monthly allowance.
Stephen Powell, clerk of the board and chief of staff for Johnson County, said that county uses four options.
It gives some employees an allowance. It provides county-owned cellphones to some staff members. It will reimburse employees who infrequently use their personal cellphones for business. It also provides some employees loaner phones when needed for business.
There are three set tiers for monthly allowances: $30 for basic use, $45 for high use and $60 for extensive use. Other amounts may be requested with special approval.
Powell didn’t have information readily available about how many employees had cellphones last year, but he said that as of Tuesday, 594 staff members were receiving an average monthly allowance of about $40.
Buchanan said Sedgwick County’s cellphone policies will change.
“In the business world and in part of our world, we require mechanics to bring their tools to work. Is this a tool that we should require people to bring to work, or do we help pay for those folks we absolutely want to have a cellphone?” he asked rhetorically. “I know we’re paying a lot of money. I know society has changed about how we think about cellphones.”