- The Washington Times - Monday, March 13, 2006

The D.C. Department of Mental Health in fiscal 2005 spent more than $30,000 on hand-held BlackBerry technology, prompting criticism from a D.C. Council member who says the money could have been put to better use.

“I understand everybody likes these gadgets,” said D.C. Council member David A. Catania, at-large independent and chairman of the council’s Committee on Health, which oversees the mental health department.

“I wouldn’t buy myself a BlackBerry,” he said of the wireless e-mail devices.

Speaking at a council oversight hearing of the department last week, Mr. Catania told mental health officials he had concerns about several other purchases, too.

For example, he questioned the “$75,000 for snow and ice removal whenwe have what is called a Department of Public Works that plows the streets.”

And, he said, contracts given to some mental health professionals appear high, including more than $148,000 to Jennifer Carter, a psychologist.

“She’s going to make more than the new director of the [Department of Mental Health] if I’m not mistaken, and that doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense,” Mr. Catania said.

“We ought to be able to do it in-house for less,” he said.

Department officials, including interim Director Ella Thomas, told Mr. Catania last week they would review the contracts.

Miss Thomas told Mr. Catania that not long after her appointment in October that she was “confronted with multiple irregularities” in contracting and the department’s payments to service providers.

Linda Grant, a department spokeswoman, said Friday that mental health officials need the wireless technology because they are on call around-the-clock.

Miss Grant also said that while other city employees provide snow and ice removal for public roads, the department still has to clear off sidewalks and alleys at clinics and at St. Elizabeths Hospital, the District’s psychiatric facility in Southeast.

In addition, Miss Grant said the department is constantly reviewing its mix of employees and contractors hired for handling psychological-assessment cases, which are referred to the mental health department by the courts.

“One of the things we do as part of being fiscally responsible is finding out what is the best way of using our resources efficiently,” she said.

Unlike most other city agencies, the mental health department for the most part handles its own contracts.

Miss Thomas said last week the auditing firm KPMG has been hired to perform a management review of the department’s contracting and budget. The review began in December.

Some of the department’s smaller purchases in fiscal 2005 included $1,600 for steering-wheel locks, $400 for a subscription to the New York Times and $451.69 for employee mugs, records show.

Cell-phone use also figured prominently in the department’s outsourcing for fiscal 2005, city records show.

The department paid Verizon $150,000 for cell-phone service. It also paid $36,000 for long-distance phone service, records show.

“Who are we calling?” Mr. Catania asked at the oversight hearing. “This is a waste.”

Miss Grant said overall, the department has used technology to improve and streamline services. For example, she said the department is getting better value for the services it pays to providers.

She said the department has moved away from paying out grants in favor of a fee-for-service arrangement.

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