Florida Keys News - Key West Citizen
Thursday, May 17, 2012
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County mulls new equipment policy; sues KEYS

Monroe County may phase out its practice of providing county-owned smartphones and cellphones in lieu of giving a stipend to county employees who must have a such communication devices for work.

Commissioners discussed the issue Wednesday, but wanted more information on the proposal before voting on it.

Employees who require basic cell service -- no voice mail or texting -- would receive a stipend of $13.85 per pay period and a biannual equipment stipend of $100, under a proposal by County Administrator Roman Gastesi. County employees who must have texting and phone services would receive a stipend of $23.08 per pay period and a biannual equipment stipend of $100, the proposal states.

County employees who must have access to email via a smartphone would receive a stipend of $46.15 per pay period and a biannual equipment stipend of $200. Employees with existing cellphones would have the option of transferring ownership of that phone, with its number, to the employee's personal cellular account.

The purpose of this change is to provide for a more efficient use of county resources, Gastesi said. Commissioners said Wednesday they want more information on the long-term costs of reimbursing the employees compared to purchasing phones for employees. Gastesi told commissioners it could cost an additional $25,000 a year to reimburse the employees, but the county would not have to audit and itemize bills to see if calls were work-related, which can be "very time-consuming."

The plan would free up staff time, and time is money, Gastesi said. The county currently spends about $165,000 a year for smartphones and iPads and the included service, he said.

The policy change comes amid the county's former technical services director being investigated for stealing county-owned iPads and iPhones and selling them to Gastesi, Commissioner Heather Carruthers and other county workers. The former director, Lisa Druckemiller, retired from the county in March before county officials could punish her for the alleged infractions.

The Monroe County State Attorney's Office is investigating the allegations. The investigation is ongoing and investigators have not released the names of everyone who purchased the county-owned equipment. Prosecutors plan to bring the investigation before a recently seated grand jury, but they are still awaiting billing information from AT&T.

The grand jury investigation will go beyond criminal prosecution and look at county auditing and inventory policies for cellphones and computer equipment. The grand jury may make recommendations on improving the county inventory policies, said County Mayor David Rice, who has been in contact with State Attorney Dennis Ward on the issue.

Rice has proposed having either the Florida Commission on Ethics or an outside independent reviewer determine whether any county employees or officials violated county policies. However, that would not be done until the grand jury has finished its work.

"It could be quite far-reaching," Rice said of the grand jury investigation. "We will get a detailed report from the grand jury."

No Name Key power

Commissioners on Wednesday agreed to file a lawsuit against Keys Energy Services and may ask for an injunction to block the public utility from running commercial power to No Name Key. The lawsuit was filed Wednesday in circuit court in Key West.

The utility has embarked on a plan to bring commercial power to No Name Key, and earlier this month, its board approved several contracts to run lines there and do other work.

The utility is expecting to bring power to the island by the end of August, officials said.

The county's comprehensive plan states that utilities are "discouraged" on No Name Key. Outside of the lawsuit, the county could halt the project by refusing to grant building permits to connect the homes to power lines or sign off on easements needed to bring commercial power there. The easements may be on conservation lands, and county officials aren't sure if they could approve the easements even if they wanted to, officials said.

The county initially sued the utility on the issue so it could have a local judge rule on whether it violated the county's comprehensive plan. However, Judge David Audlin ruled in February that the Public Service Commission (PSC) has jurisdiction and should rule in the case. The county and several residents on No Name Key appealed the dismissal to the 3rd District Court of Appeal, which has yet to rule on the matter.

Before the PSC could make a ruling on the matter, the Utility Board agreed to bring power to No Name Key. The utility has since asked the PSC to dismiss the case, which it will consider doing at its June 5 meeting.

Earlier this year, the commission voted to be an intervening party in the PSC case.

The commission will discuss the litigation and an injunction when it meets in closed session at a special meeting on Tuesday in Key West.

tohara@keysnews.com

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