Supervisors: Phones needed, with supervision

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, August 3, 2010

NATCHEZ — Most members of the Adams County Board of Supervisors defended, at Monday’s board meeting, the use of county-issued cell phones, but they also agreed change is needed.

Supervisors said a few alarming numbers on the county phone bills published in a Sunday article in The Natchez Democrat should have been addressed before hitting the front page.

The bills showed that one employee used 68,520 minutes in a year. His totals in one month averaged to seven hours of talk time per day, including weekends. Another employee had numbers nearly as high.

Supervisor Mike Lazarus said the county should be paying more attention to the bills.

“A lot of these employees never see their own phone bill. We don’t need The Democrat telling us what is on our bill. If there’s somebody (whose bill is excessive), somebody should red flag it,” Lazarus said.

However, Lazarus said a cell phone is necessary for his job. He said he began receiving calls at 6 a.m. Monday.

Lazarus is the only county supervisor to pay his cell phone bill from his own pocket.

“I’ve had four missed calls in the past hour since we’ve been here,” Lazarus said.

District 4 Supervisor and Board President Darryl Grennell said after the meeting that the board passed a motion during executive session to send a letter to county employees who used an excessive number of minutes, indicating their phone usage will be monitored.

In addition, District 2 Supervisor Henry Watts urged the board to organize a forum with the supervisors, county road manager and road employees to discuss cell phone usage and gas mileage on county vehicles.

District 5 Supervisor S.E. “Spanky” Felter said cell phones were necessary tools for the supervisors.

“That is the only tool we have. We don’t have hammers or saws, we have a telephone,” Felter said.

Felter said comments from newspaper readers on The Democrat’s Web site suggesting the county forgo cell phones and switch to walkie-talkies are unreasonable.

Grennell said county employees used to use walkie-talkies before cell phones were available, but the county walkie-talkie system has since been dismantled.

District 3 Supervisor Thomas “Boo” Campbell added that citizens would not be able to reach them if they used walkie-talkies, anyway.

Supervisors also stressed the importance of having smart phones, such as iPhones and Blackberries, with e-mail access.

Grennell said officials on the state level, especially, tend to communicate electronically these days.

Watts said he often receives invitations to short-notice meetings via e-mail, and his iPhone lets him see the message right away.

Felter said the $30 Internet fee on his cell phone replaces charges that would be incurred if he had a land line phone and office computer. He estimated the savings at $52 a month for the phone and $1,800 for the cost of a computer.

“(Comments from readers on The Democrat Web site) were saying, ‘They got iPhones, they just think it’s cool.’ I don’t think it’s a cool thing, I think it’s a business thing. Anybody can call (the board of supervisor’s secretary) to get my phone number because that is the taxpayers’ number,” Felter said.

“If they call me, I’m going to answer. That’s my job,” Felter said.

Campbell said it is unrealistic to separate personal and private cell phone use.

“How are you going to separate if you wife calls you? Citizens call you every day. How are you not going to have a phone? You have to,” Campell said.

Watts has two phones, one for work paid by the county and one for personal use paid from his personal account, and he said it is a nuisance.

Campbell said many other counties’ supervisors have county-issued cars, and he finds it surprising to be criticized for simply having a cell phone.

Watts said he is glad Lazarus brought attention to the issue about some employees bills costing more than others in the article in The Democrat, but he wishes it would have been addressed to the supervisors first.

Lazarus said he did address the issue of cell phone bills at the last meeting.

“I mentioned that one phone bill was $280 and another was $80. I didn’t know about all of those (excessive charges reported in The Democrat),” Lazarus said.

Felter said the supervisors have saved the county money in several other arenas, but the people do not hear about it because he does not “toot his own horn.”

“I’m just tired of doing so many good things for this county. And then we get blasted over a telephone,” Felter said.

County resident John T. Seyfarth Jr., 139 Upper Kingston Road, attended Monday’s meeting to address the supervisors about cell phone use.

“I know y’all need to talk, but do we need 55 phones? I know y’all gave up county vehicles, and have saved the county money, but somebody needs to get a cap of all the expenditures,” Seyfarth said.

Felter said he agreed that the reported seven hours a day on the cell phone, for instance, should have been stopped.

“It sounds like you’re not telling the right hand what the left hand’s doing,” Seyfarth said.

Watts said the Sunday article in The Democrat incorrectly suggested he blamed the former county administrator for not letting him know about a nearly $600 charge on his bill that AT&T eventually credited back to the county. Watts said he was made aware of the erroneous charges and asked the administrator not to pay that portion of the bill, but she paid it anyway.