The usage of state-owned cell phones by state employees fell under scrutiny last week when the Wisconsin Legislative Audit Bureau released a report detailing nearly $3 million in charges for the 2003-2004 fiscal year.

In the report, the LAB said two-thirds of state-owned cell-phone bills for September were less than $20.

However, controversy has arisen over the nearly 400 bills that surpassed $100. In September, five cell-phone bills were higher than $500.

Of the bills that were more than $500, four were racked up by University of Wisconsin System employees and one by a National Guardsman. Two bills totaled nearly $1500, one was for $800, one was for $700 and the final was $551.

The UW System had bills totaling over $1 million, or about one-third of the state’s charges for the year. The University of Wisconsin-Madison alone had charges of almost $600,000.

UW System spokesman Doug Bradley said the university is concerned about cell-phone expenses, although he believes much of the cell-phone usage is necessary.

“Everybody’s concerned about spending, especially nowadays,” Bradley said. “I think we can say with fair certainty that we’re going to do what we can to bring this under control.”

The state provides roughly 10,000 cell phones to state employees to be used for work purposes, costing a total of $2.9 million. In contrast, the 100,000 landlines used by state employees cost $16 million in the same year.

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and Department of Transportation had the second- and third-highest bills of $378,000 and $370,000, respectively.

The Wisconsin Department of Administration negotiates cell-phone contracts for all state agencies, including the UW System. In the fall of 2003, a group organized by the DOA was created to reduce unused or unnecessary cell phones, landlines and voicemail services. After the creation of this group, a total of 814 cell phones statewide were cut in nearly six months.

With the January implementation of a new DOA policy outlining usage and monitoring of state cell phones, state agencies are attempting to maintain fiscal responsibility.

The LAB recommended monthly bills of $100 or more to be reviewed to ensure the phones are being used properly.

Another suggestion by the LAB is to monitor the cost-effectiveness of phone plans for employees who frequently work away from their desks or conduct fieldwork. However, the LAB acknowledged that many employees have positions requiring they spend time away from their offices on a regular basis, like social workers, UW sports coaches, DNR wardens, probation and parole agents and inspectors.

Bradley cited UW athletic employees as one example of some coaches who have high cell-phone bills because of the “responsibilities that are incumbent upon them.”

“The university is unlike other agencies — it is somewhat unique [because it is] part of state government, we are working to comply with [state regulations],” Bradley said.

“We are much more aware of the [spending] situation now.”

The cell-phone audit is not the first investigation into the use of state-owned property.

The audit was conducted in response to a request by state Sen. Robert Cowles, R-Green Bay. Cowles said he asked for the cell-phone audit as a follow-up to an audit of the state-vehicle fleet last year.

“It is always our responsibility to use our scarce resources wisely and give all purchases and services heavy scrutiny,” Cowles said in a statement. “I want to help implement the recommendations of regular reviews of cell-phone policies and better tracking and accountability of costs.”