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Who ya gonna call?

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But it could be much worse. If Southwestern Bell Mobile Systems didn't give the city a big price break, the cost would be many times that amount.

Southwestern Bell offers a special state and local government rate for the city, one that beats anything an individual, or even most large companies, could hope to get.

For a flat fee of $75 per month per phone, the city gets unlimited airtime for all local calls, no matter what time of the day or night. And thanks to the genius of modern communications technology, the local calling region on a mobile phone is vast--stretching as far east as Canton, as far west as Granbury, as far south as Hillsboro, and as far north as Sherman.

"It really is a real good rate," says Judy Shaw, assistant director of the city's Equipment Communications and Information Services department. "We have other cities that call us all the time to do surveys about mobile phones. And they say Wow! How did you get that rate?"

That fabulous rate, of course, does not include calls made to cities outside the local calling area; those, of course, incur long-distance charges. Those charges, which are billed to the city separately from the $75 flat fee, are in addition to the $579,809 a year the city spends for its phones.

Other charges can hike the price tag further. For example, if someone uses his mobile phone from outside the calling area, it not only racks up long-distance charges, but also "roaming charges"--the fees that other long-distance carriers charge Southwestern Bell customers for transmitting their mobile phone calls.

Roaming charges are much heftier than long-distance charges--and if you don't believe it, just ask Councilwoman Sandra Crenshaw, the council's cellular-phone queen.

On a much smaller dollar scale, there are calls to directory assistance, which incur an extra 60-cent charge per call. And if you allow directory assistance to automatically dial your call for you, it's an additional 15-cent charge. Then there are special features you can get on your mobile phone--such as call waiting, call forwarding, and three-party dialing. There are nominal monthly charges for that, too.

Fortunately, most city employees are hard-pressed to come up with a good reason for making long-distance calls on their mobile phones. Even if they do, they have to justify such calls to their boss or pay the consequences out of their own pocket.

In sum, Judy Shaw says it's difficult to total up all the money spent citywide on long distance, since long-distance bills go to the phone-users' bosses, the various department heads, and Shaw's department leaves it up to them to budget and police.

Too bad the city councilmembers don't have a boss.
Sandra Crenshaw does things with her mobile phone that no one who cares about the sanctity of a taxpayer dollar would ever think of doing.

Most other councilmembers, however, don't pistol-whip the privilege. Sure, they talk incessantly, but what they do doesn't cost the city much beyond the $75-a-month rate.

A few even reimburse the city for some or all of their long-distance and special service charges. Bob Stimson, for example, has made two payments (one right after the Observer asked for his mobile-phone records).

And then there are three councilmembers--bless 'em--who don't have city mobile phones at all. Domingo Garcia, who is a lawyer, contracts privately for his own mobile phone, which he uses for city and personal matters--and he pays for it out of his own pocket. Max Wells does not use a mobile phone, period. Neither does Glenn Box.

"I didn't even know we could get mobile phones," a surprised Box told me last week. "I guess they forgot to tell me." Box, a lawyer with a large downtown firm, has somehow muddled through six years as a city councilman without having a taxpaid mobile phone--or any mobile phone, for that matter--glued to his ear. And he has no regrets.

"To tell you the truth, I probably wouldn't have gotten one even if I'd known it was available," Box says. "For one thing, I don't like people calling me in my car. I need some place where no one can bother me--I'll take the radio or silence. And besides that, I don't think the taxpayers should be paying for something like that."

But, alas, the taxpayers do.
And with that in mind, welcome to the dialing worlds of your manager, mayor, and council. We have no Lady Di-esque transcripts of illicit phone calls between regal folks. No calls to exotic countries. No clandestine use of 900 numbers.

But if you want to make your council representative squirm, just go eye-to-eye with him at his next town hall meeting and, while staring at his mobile phone, whisper "roaming charges" or "IHOP."

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Laura Miller

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