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JUNE 05, 11:04 EDT
Cities Preparing for Y2K Problems
By The Associated Press
With about 36,000 local governments in the United States, cities' and counties' preparations for possible Y2K computer bug problems are literally all over the map.
Take Lawrence, Kan., for example. The city of about 65,000 people spent $200,000 upgrading its 911 emergency system, which would otherwise have failed. The city water supply should be fine, said Rod Bremby, assistant city manager, but if necessary it's small enough to operate manually, a luxury bigger cities with more sophisticated systems can't afford.
Big-city Portland, Ore., has many plans in the works, even organizing block leaders, possibly thousands of them, to address problems at a grassroots level. ``We're taking this seriously,'' Portland Mayor Vera Katz said. ``The purpose is not to raise a tremendous amount of concern, but to be prepared for an emergency. It doesn't mean it's going to happen.''
The Y2K bug occurs because computers programmed to recognize only the last two digits of a year may not work properly beginning Jan. 1, 2000, if the machines assume it is 1900. Some computers can be reprogrammed, but many have embedded microchips that must be replaced.
Local governments need computers to operate traffic signals, dispatch police and fire fighters, run jails and maintain sewer systems. Computers are also used to run payrolls, track taxes and manage fleets of city vehicles. So, possible fallouts from the computer problem range from the grievous to the glitchy.
``Our greatest domestic risks for Year-2000 related failures are at the local level,'' said John A. Koskinen, chairman of the president's council on Y2K. On May 24, he announced a series of ``community conversations,'' town hall-like meetings aimed at sharing information between local businesses and governments, utilities and community groups.
Ultimately, about the only thing localities have in common is uncertainty.
``We like to think that things will be fine,'' said Peter Jensen, spokesman for Environmental Services, a municipal agency in San Jose, Calif. ``But it's hard to guess what's really going to happen.''
``It's very difficult to know just what has been fixed and what needs to be fixed,'' said Victor W. Porlier, executive director of the Center for Civic Renewal in New York. He is the author of ``Y2K: An Action Plan'' and a former information systems executive in the State Department's Agency for International Development.
Public water systems are a common worry for many of the cities surveyed by The Associated Press.
``The situation on water is very unclear,'' said Porlier. ``For instance, L.A. is three automated aqueducts from being a desert.''
Well, not quite, said Bob Gomperz, spokesman for the Metropolitan Water District of southern California. The three aqueducts could be operated manually if necessary. And the water system undergoes Y2K tests throughout the year.
What needs to be fixed has been a priority on the federal level since at least 1997. But it's the cities and towns of America that could first face any digital dilemmas, and some say they are lagging.
``You can look at virtually every small town in America and discover they got a late start on Y2K,'' said Cathy Moyer, a cofounder of the Cassandra Project, an organization dedicated to fostering community readiness for Y2K problems. While many local governments are making good progress, she said, some are ``dragging their feet.''
Burlington, Vt., acknowledges it got a late start on Y2K, having begun last summer. The city has only one employee dealing with the issue full time, but an ice storm in January 1998 gave the city plenty of practice if services were knocked out.
``We'll make sure our emergency management plan is thoroughly updated. We'll have contingencies in place,'' said Bill Mitchell, as assistant to Mayor Peter Clavelle. ``For example, there is a possibility that someone's home heating system might fail. We have to have alternatives with temporary shelter available.''
In Tucson, Ariz., Todd Sanders, city director of information, said the city was well on its way to evaluating and tallying the systems that need to be fixed. Emergency systems, 911, water and city payrolls are all in the final stages of remediation, he said.
But, ``the assessment, the look, the review is continuing with all departments,'' he said. ``Nobody has declared victory and stopped dealing with the issues.''
San Jose, Calif., ground zero for technology, knows that not only its citizens are dependent on the city's efforts. In addition, high-tech manufacturing companies such as Intel, Cisco, Apple, National Semiconductor, Hewlett Packard and Sun Microsystems are betting that the lights come on come the new year.
``We have critical factories, manufacturing environments going seven days a week,'' said Intel spokesman Bill Calder. His company is sending inspectors to local power, sewer and water companies to review their Y2K plans. ``We must make sure that all of their systems are ready. We count on them.''
Dayton, Ohio, has a staff of 48 full-time workers looking at the city government's computer systems, and has already replaced its mainframe systems. Now, said William Hill, the city's director of information and technical services, technicians must test the city's computer servers, then each of the 1,500 to 2,000 individual terminals and PCs, and then the software installed in each.
Mobile, Ala., started working on the Y2K problem in 1995 and plans to spend $6 million on its efforts. But mayoral aide Christopher Lee, who is in charge of Y2K compliance, said the city of 200,000 won't start verifying all its repairs until September, which some experts consider tardy. The local water company, which has endured hurricanes, installed backup generators on new pumps about two years ago to ensure continued water pressure in the event of disaster or power failure.
``If we can handle hurricane recovery, we can work through this,'' said Lee.
In New York City, most of the 400-odd priority systems are Y2K compliant, said Jerome Hauer, director of the office of emergency management. The deadline for everything to be ready is July 1. Starting in late summer, the city will begin a mammoth public outreach campaign to neighborhoods and citizens' groups. New York started work on the problem in September 1996, the mayor's office said.
Portland, Ore., officials have drafted plans to organize the city's 200,000 households under neighborhood leaders trained to head off problems. The details are still up in the air. But one idea discussed early on has been scaled back.
``We're not going to go door to door and organize every household in the city,'' said Richard Hofland, Portland's Y2K project manager. ``If people want to do that, we're going to support them in that. That's just one of the options.''
EDITOR'S NOTE This story was reported by AP writers Chris Allbritton in New York; Chris Clark in Lawrence, Kan.; Lauren Dodge in Portland, Ore.; James Hannah in Dayton, Ohio; Martha Mendoza in San Jose, Calif.; Garry Mitchell in Mobile, Ala.; Wilson Ring in Burlington, Vt.; and Arthur Rotstein in Tucson, Ariz. It was written by Allbritton.
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