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Investigation: Massive Taxpayer-Funded Cell Phone Bills on Prov. City Council

Monday, May 07, 2012


Taxpayers are shelling out more than $1,000 each month to cover the tab for the cell phone bills of Providence City Council members and one Councilwoman has been forced to pay back a huge chunk of her bill for using the phone to make personal calls, a GoLocalProv review of city cell phone costs shows.

In the fourth months after winning a special election to fill the Ward 9 seat following the death of Miguel Luna, Councilwoman Carmen Castillo’s $2,218.90 cell phone bill was larger than any other Council member’s total bill between April 2011 and March 2012.

Last month, City Council staff determined that Castillo made $832 worth of personal calls and forced her to begin paying off the bill, which she did in two installments. It is unclear how the staff determined how much of Castillo’s bill came from personal use.

Castillo: All a “Mistake”

So how does a Council member run up such a massive bill?

By mistake, Castillo claims.

"When I became Councilwoman, the City issued me a new cellular phone with the phone number that I have had for many years,” Castillo wrote in a statement to GoLocalProv. “At the same time, I purchased a new cellular phone for personal use. I mistakenly used my City cellular phone to make personal phone calls. As soon as I realized this mistake, I reimbursed the City for these calls.”

Thousands of dollars later, Castillo said she and Council Chief of Staff Jake Bissaillon realized she and several of her colleagues were not on the same cell phone plan as the rest of the Council, which gave them a smaller pool of minutes to use each month in what essentially amounts to a “family cell phone plan.”

The plan, which was set by Verizon, allots an arbitrary amount of minutes to certain Council members, which means some of the larger bills aren't necessarily usage-related. Still, while four other Council members have run up cell phone bills of more than $1,000 since last April, only Castillo was caught using her phone for personal reasons. Bissaillon said, “Historically, there are instances of Council Members reimbursing the city for personal cell phone use on city phones.”

But the excuses aren’t good enough for Tara Pinsky, chairperson of the Providence Republicans. Pinsky said she sees no reason why Castillo or any Council members would need to rack up thousands of dollars of calls on a city-paid cell phone. She noted that while the position is part-time, Council members are paid nearly $19,000 annually and receive health benefits.

“At a time when everyone else in Providence – taxpayers, retirees, non-profits and city employees – are making sacrifices for the public good, Councilwoman Carmen Castillo is either unaware – or doesn’t care – about the city’s dire financial situation,” Pinsky said.

With the city still struggling to bridge its budget gap in the current fiscal year, Pinsky said officials should take a closer look at just who is receiving a cell phone and how much they are spending.

“I am sure that Mayor Taveras and other members of the City Council are as disgusted as I am,” she said. I urge Mayor Taveras to continue leading Providence towards a fiscally responsible future by conducting a city-wide audit of cell phone usage and require that anyone authorized to have a city-paid phone use it for city business only.”

390 Cell Phones for City Employees

Pinsky isn’t the first person to raise questions about city cell phone use. Last February, Taveras’ Municipal Finances Review Panel found that 140 of the nearly 400 cell phones issued in Providence were for non-public safety employees and suggested the city should “review its overall policy regarding provision of cell phones to ensure use is required for job performance.”

Records show 390 employees have cell phones and the bill between April 2011 and March 2012 totaled $217,111.38. Some of the Council’s costs include the purchase of “new equipment,” including a $374 cell phone for Ward 7 Councilman John Igliozzi and a $295 phone for Ward 8 Councilman Wilbur Jennings.

"When you’re in the private sector, your employer gives you a phone, has you sign for it and tells you what the maximum allowed minutes are and if you go over, you pay for it,” said city activist Anthony Sionni. “What we have here is Council members ringing up unlimited charges at the taxpayers’ expense. Where is the accountability?”

Sionni said he believes Council members deserve to have cell phones, but they shouldn't all be on the same plan and they certainly should be using the phones for personal calls.

"Some of these charges are outrageous,” he said. “The city is struggling financially and we are paying for these out of control charges. Are they downloading apps and buying music too?”

Calls for More Transparency

For Providence resident and government watchdog Judith Reilly, it all comes down to oversight and transparency. She said she believes Council members should have their bills posted online for the public to view.

“I'd say as a taxpayer that I would like to see the City Auditor make sure that the Council's telephone bills reflect calls made on taxpayer business,” Reilly said. “I'd also like to see their itemized bills posted on-line. Isn't Mayor Taveras supposed to be about honesty, accountability, and fiscal responsibility?

In the meantime, Castillo said she will work to make sure her “mistakes” aren’t repeated by anyone else on the Council.

“I am working with the Council President and the Council’s Chief of Staff, Jake Bisallion, to implement procedures to make sure that no other Council members can make the same mistake, to ensure the City only covers properly incurred expenses and purchases the most cost effective cellular phones,” she said.

Dan McGowan can be reached at [email protected]


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