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City's switch glitch
A move from mainframe to PCs irks staff, citizens
Friday, February 18, 2000
JOEL KURTH THE SAGINAW NEWS
Saginaw water customers and police officers still are suffering hangovers from a $5 million computer upgrade intended to avoid a New Year's calamity.
Two months after dumping its relic mainframe, the city still is struggling with its transition to personal computers.
Police officers, for instance, still can't use 30 heavy-duty laptops because they lack proper software to link into a Lansing system that keeps tabs on criminal records and warrants.
For more than a month, officers have written computerized reports in the office - taking them away from street patrols.
Hundreds of the city's 22,000 water customers, meanwhile, received faulty bills demanding nonexistent late charges. Councilman Delbert J. Schrems said the city even mailed some erroneous shut-off notices.
Administrators say they're swiftly correcting the goofs but maintained some are unavoidable in the huge project.
They can't promise to avoid more surprises, however.
"Will it happen again? I can't guarantee it won't," acknowledged William L. Bailey, city spokesman.
Most mistakes stem from transferring an "enormous" amount of data to personal computers from the "huge, belching" mainframe that encompassed an entire room in City Hall, Bailey said.
Experts feared that the computer would crash on New Year's Day, when a supposed glitch would erase information from computers that weren't reprogrammed to correctly read the year 2000.
Too expensive to fix, the worthless machine is now in a landfill.
Bailey couldn't account for how many water customers received bad bills, but
said trouble started when computers failed to bill customers.
Officials later sent statements demanding late fees that averaged $2.50, Bailey said. He said clerks have deleted the fees and solved the situation, but Schrems said problems began months ago and have yet to end.
"You expect some tweaking and refining, but it's been six months since the first bad bill was sent out," he said.
Assistant Police Chief Donald F. Pussehl Jr., meanwhile, said the police's tough transition to laptops eventually will make jobs easier - even if it's causing headaches now.
Officers traditionally wrote reports by hand, then forwarded them to clerks who entered a fraction of the information into the mainframe.
The county's police agencies now are working on the project to install 204 laptops in cars and establish a network to share information among themselves and with state police in Lansing.
The hope is the network will allow officers to instantly swap information about suspects and learn every encounter they've had with police statewide.
A $3.3 million federal grant is footing much of the bill, but agencies must kick in an additional $1,200 for each computer and an annual $400 per unit for maintenance, said sheriff's Capt. Robert Rae.
A $5 increase in traffic fines also will allow the District Court to contribute $150,000 annually to replace the computers, Rae said.
When completed in spring, the network will become the first of its kind in Michigan, said Prosecutor Michael D. Thomas.
Faced with the end of the mainframe but still waiting for the county to launch its network in spring, the city used a $134,000 federal grant to buy 30 computers in the interim. They'll buy another 52, pushing the city's contribution to about $100,000.
One problem: Designed to work with the county's system, the laptops aren't hooked into the Law Enforcement Information Network in Lansing that keeps track of criminal records and warrants.
The software also doesn't work, Pussehl said.
For now, officers return early from their shifts to type reports in department computers that are hooked into the network. They will do the work in the cars when the county project is established.
"We're losing a little time, but I wouldn't say a lot," said Pussehl, who becomes chief next month when James B. Golden leaves for Trenton, N.J.
That leaves the city with 30 computers that no one now uses. Pussehl said most will remain in storage and serve as backups if the others malfunction. Detectives also will use some, he said.
Related woes caused delays in writing reports necessary to prosecute cases, said Tom McIntyre, director of 911. For weeks,
city clerks borrowed Central Dispatch Authority computers to ac cess state police records, he said.
The same difficulties caused the city to turn away those seeking gun permits. The Sheriff's Department picked up the slack, said Sheriff Charles Brown.
"It's more of an inconvenience than anything else," Brown said.
Pussehl downplayed the problems, saying the city is "working through the glitches."
Schrems is dubious.
"It's like they're getting dragged, pushed and shoved to get on line," he said. "They planned this for three years and shouldn't have these ... pro
-- Homer Beanfang (Bats@inbellfry.com), February 18, 2000