By Kirsten Adshead | Wisconsin Reporter
MADISON — Just as a small step can lead to a marathon, a small change can, apparently, save taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars.
And those small steps, taken over and over, have the potential to save millions.
Just ask the Department of Transportation’s Division of Motor Vehicles.
In 2008, DMV officials looked into cutting costs for their toll-free lines. They put more information online. They stopped advertising the toll-free line on the DMV website, in hopes of decreasing usage. This year, they contracted with a new provider, who charges the agency .025-cents a minute, versus the old rate of 0.035
Wisconsin taxpayers were on the hook for $46,700 this year for the DMV’s toll-free lines, versus the $134,748 they paid for the lines in 2008, a 65-percent drop in just four years.
In 2008, callers were on the DMV toll-free line for more than 3.6 million minutes. For 2012, the DMV estimates that dropped to just under 1.4 million.
“Through the last several budgets, as we have needed to show some reductions, that’s largely how we’ve made them,” said Lynne Judd, the DMV’s administrator.
Specifically, in its previous budget, the DMV asked — and was granted — permission to use the money the agency was getting to pay for 10 or 11 open positions for information-technology development instead. Then, after two years, the agency would give up that funding and those positions.
Those savings may barely make a blip in a state biennial budget that hovers around $60 billion, but it’s the type of change — a precise, surgical incision versus, say, an amputation — that Gov. Scott Walker’s Waste, Fraud and Abuse Elimination Task Force says can lead to significant savings if other agencies take the DMV’s lead.
State agencies — and, by extension, Wisconsin taxpayers — shell out more than $1 million a year for 1,374 toll-free lines, the task force reported last month.
Research shows that roughly 30 percent of Wisconsin households are cell-phone only, meaning those callers will be charged the same number of minutes whether or not they call a toll-free line. The agencies, however, continue to pay for keeping those callers on the phone.
The Internet, in general, also makes it easier than ever for people to access public information.
“With changing times and technology the demand for toll-free numbers is decreasing,” the task force concluded in its third-quarter report. “The number of state residents with landlines is dropping and the number with free long distance cell phones is increasing.”
Most state agencies, however, don’t seem to have adapted to the times.
The University of Wisconsin System alone has 462 toll-free lines, with the flagship campus UW-Madison using 277.
They go to offices such as the “Wisconsin Clearinghouse,” which says its mission is to help people to build healthier environments; to the African American Depression Intervention Studies office; and to the Instructional Communications System help line.
No one Wisconsin Reporter contacted Wednesday with the UW System or UW-Madison was able to determine whether the university had ever conducted a review of its use of toll-free lines.
The second-largest user of toll-free lines among state agencies is the Department of Health Services, with 379 lines.
The third, according to the task force, is the State Assembly. But Assembly Chief Clerk Patrick Fuller said the task force’s report erred in reporting that the Assembly, which has 99 members, has 199 toll-free phone lines.
“We have less than 100. I don’t know where the governor’s office got that (number) from,” Fuller said.
Stephanie Smiley, the communications director for DHS, said the agency has about 25,000 active cases at any given time, involving people who need help with Supplemental Security Income, Disability and Medicaid.
“Staff at the (Disability Determination Bureau) have toll free numbers to make it easier for the clients to contact them regarding their case,” Smiley wrote in an email to Wisconsin Reporter. “Many claimants have no ability to pay long distance to reach staff to provide follow-up information.”
Judd said the changes that the DMV has made aren’t necessarily the changes that will work best for other agencies.
“You have to kind of pull apart your business, do the analysis of what’s costing you the most, or what kind of interaction or transaction you have most frequently — where you either would get the greatest savings or you would get the biggest improvement in your customer service,” she said.
Contact Kirsten Adshead at email@example.com.