DMV seeks to dump its toll-free line
HARTFORD -- In what could be a precedent-setting move during tough fiscal times, the state Department of Motor Vehicles wants to eliminate its toll-free phone number to cut an estimated $80,000 annually.
Despite being the most called toll-free number in April of the 350 the state offers, the line is no longer a necessary public service because of technology improvements, DMV spokesman William Seymour said.
"This was set up many years ago to give people an opportunity to reach the DMV outside of the Hartford calling area without incurring toll charges," Seymour said. "But for the last decade, and most especially in the last five years, there's been a large increase in cell(phone) use ... And with that came new and expanded data plans that provide many ways of calling that doesn't cost a lot of money to people anymore."
He also said the agency believes some people simply call the number out of habit when it is not necessary.
The proposal to dump the toll-free line is tucked into a catch-all bill that includes changes in weigh station operations and license renewals.
According to records provided by the Department of Information Technology, state government pays for 350 toll-free 1-800, 1-888, 1-877 and 1-866 lines spread across 57 agencies and three branches of government.
Charges for the most recent April billing cycle totaled $48,453.86 for 267,607 calls totaling more than 14 million minutes.
After DMV, the top five most called numbers in April were those maintained by the Department of Social Services, the Employment Security Division, the Judicial Branch, the Department of Revnue and the Department of Children and Families.
DMV, according to Seymour, received 366,461 toll-free calls in 2010.
"Off the cuff, that seems like a lot of calls to me," said Sen. Gayle Slossberg, D-Milford, who recently co-chaired a committee charged with finding ways to streamline government while improving services. Slossberg said the group did not consider reducing toll-free numbers.
"We need to trim expenses and we see eliminating the 800 number as a small inconvenience that is a part of the shared sacrifice everyone needs to make to balance the state budget," Seymour said.
The legislation has been passed by the transportation and public safety and security committees and awaits action in the Senate. But some lawmakers still have concerns.
Whiting said lawmakers representing low-income urban areas believe toll-free numbers are still necessary for their constituents.
"Some simply can't afford to make that call," Whiting said.
Rep. David Scribner, R-Brookfield, a ranking Republican on the Legislature's transportation committee, voted against the bill. Scribner said 800 numbers may become passe in the future, but they still are an important public service.
"I think we should provide as much access in regard to information, especially when expecting residents to abide by laws," Scribner said.
Asked in an interview whether state government should be eliminating other toll-free numbers to save money, Barnes said it depends.
"An across-the-board ban on 800 numbers? I would propose it be something we look at individually," Barnes said.
OPM actually maintains a toll-free number, which cost $19.50 in April for 6,781 minutes of use.
Barnes said the General Assembly's caucuses maintain toll-free numbers for constituents, and it would not be his place to suggest those be canceled.
DOIT's April numbers show the Legislature spent $375.55 that month on maintaining toll-free numbers.
Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, R-Fairfield, said it is an issue he plans to study.
"Because I'm 47, it's sort of a habit. `Oh, don't spend money calling government,' " McKinney said. "But is that really necessary with email, Internet and cellphones?"
Staff Writer Brian Lockhart can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org