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Calling cards cutting costs

To make a long-distance phone call at Langley City Hall these days, it takes 32 punches on a telephone keypad, or a properly programmed phone.

Sounds like a hassle. But if you were saving what the city seems to be, you'd risk a cramped index finger, too.

Last October, city staff started using discount telephone cards to do their long-distance calling. Taking advantage of the fact that City Hall has a small staff, the city is using the cards as an innovative way to save money as voter tax initiatives continue to drain away state income sources.

An AT&T long distance customer, the city pays out about $1,000 a month in phone charges, the bulk of which goes toward long-distance line service and calls. But a chance trip to Costco by a former city councilman could reduce that number by quite a bit this year.

In a council meeting last September, Bill Hawkins suggested the city purchase several of the discount long-distance phone cards he saw for sale at the big box retailer. At the time the cards offered rates as low as 4.5 cents per minute on long-distance calls, which was a far sight better than the peak weekday charges of 30 cents per minute the city could pay during peak calling hours.

City administration took his advice and bought six 480-minute Sprint cards for $19.95 apiece. This spring, the city got an even better deal on a batch of 3.5-cent per minute MCI cards.

Though using them required an adjustment at first, city staff is getting used to dialing the cards' 800 numbers and code numbers in addition to the long distance number they are calling. With the first two numbers programmed into speed dial, placing a call on the card takes about a minute because users have to punch their way through a few prompts with the phone card company. But after that, it's just like a long-distance television commercial: The same low rate all day, all night.

Langley Mayor Lloyd Furman said the calling card system is worth the savings.

"As long as you have a programmable phone, it works very well," he said.

Too bad it can't work for everyone. Cathy Caryl, an central services specialist with Island County, said the low card rate sounds really attractive. Unfortunately, due to the size of Island County government, it would be impossible to keep track of all the calling cards the county would need. Completely portable, the cards can be used on any phone, which creates an accountability issue in Caryl's mind.

Instead of saving long-distance money that way, the county has for the past eight years been using a system of "scan lines." Acquired through the state's Department of Information Services, the high-volume, low cost telephone lines are available to government agencies throughout the state. Using these lines gets Island County a per-minute rate of 7 cents a minute on the average 3,500 long distance calls that come out of Coupeville.

"It's a pretty good break," Caryl said.

The county's long distance bill averages about $900 a month with scan line service. Back in Langley, the city is hoping to lower its bills even more later this year if it can find a way to completely disconnect from AT&T. In addition to charging long-distance toll rates, the company dings the city $15 a month for each of its 12 long-distance connections. City clerk-treasurer Debbie Mahler said dumping these fees and calling strictly on the calling cards will make the minor headaches of keeping track of the cards and dialing extra numbers worth it. Removing that charge alone could save Langley more than $2,100 a year.

City employees have the option of paying for a portion of their calling cards themselves if they make long-distance calls from work. Furman said he paid for part of his card. The cards are assigned to specific personnel at City Hall.

Editor's note: "Initiative to Cut Back" is an occasional series that will appear in The South Whidbey Record over the next few months. It will examine the money-saving measures local government are -- and are not -- taking to weather budget shortfalls expected after the passage of voter initiatives of I-695, I-722 and the upcoming car-tab initiative I-776.

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