$469 Video Phones: Wise Investment Or City Waste?

EL PASO, Texas - The city of El Paso has installed new video phones that cost $469 each at City Hall. It's a move that's part of a larger Information Technology city strategic plan.

So far, the city has bought 50 of the phones for employees on the ninth and 10th floors, where city attorneys, city representatives and their staff are located.

The total cost of the 50 phones is $23,450.

The city's Information Technology Director Miguel Gamino said the phones will eventually save the city money by allowing department heads and city officials scattered all over town to teleconference instead of travel for meetings.

"There may be those efficiencies within those departments, but frankly I don't feel like I need one and I've never once used the video function on it," said City Rep. Beto O'Rourke about the phones.

Gamino said that installing the phones in the ninth and 10th floors was a pilot program to see if they'd work system-wide.

"We recognize now that people on the 10th floor aren't probably going to video conference one another, and that's probably why you've had the sentiment that you've had. (They have to) see the next phase of that, when they can have a face-to-face conversation with the fire chief or the police chief that's across town, without having to spend an hour round-trip in traffic," said Gamino.

Taxpayers had mixed opinions.

"I know it sounds expensive but if it's going to save them (money), teleconferencing is the way of the future, everybody's doing it, and if it's going to help the city save money in the long run, then I don't see a problem," said one man.

But another taxpayer, Becky Young, didn't agree.

"You can Skype on the computers, and that's free by the way. You don't have to have teleconferencing capabilities on a $469 phone. There's better phones cheaper and then that would free up money for other uses for the people of the city of El Paso," Young said.

City Rep. Steve Ortega said there's more to the phones than just video capabilities.

"People think, 'Oh, the only reason why it's so expensive is because it has video on it.' Well no, that's not the majority of the cost, it's the type of integrated system that we're moving into, which uses the Internet line, instead of the traditional phone line, that's where you get the cost," Ortega said.

"Is it something that's No. 1 on my priority list? No, it's not. That being said, I believe what our IT directors tell us and that is that this will cut down on travel, this will be a time-saving measure, even though you'll have that up front cost, at the end, it'll be a cost-saving measure," Ortega added.

Gamino said so far the pilot program has gone well, and they are planning to install the phones in city departments spread throughout the city.

"That investment and that return of that investment will increase as it grows across the city," he said.

"It's a government boondoggle to me," said Young.

Yet another tax-payer thought it was innovative. "If they did their analysis, there's a cost benefit, there's a true savings and they can demonstrate that, then I agree, somebody is thinking, somebody is making the right decisions," he said.

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