FL - Technical glitch stalls drivers seeking tags

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FL - Technical glitch stalls drivers seeking tags

An apparent fiber-optic cable failure left about 100 state offices with no access to motor vehicle records. By DIANE RADO and JEFF SOLOCHEK

St. Petersburg Times, published January 9, 2001

Howard Conoper of Ridge Manor came to the Hernando County Tax Collector's Office with a simple mission: renew his car tag.

Instead of walking away from the Brooksville office with the rectangular "01" sticker to affix to his license plate, Conoper left with a copy of his check, a handwritten receipt and a promise that his sticker would arrive in the mail later this week.

He was just one victim of a fiber-optic system failure that stymied and even stopped the issuing of license tags all over west-central Florida on Monday.

Conoper didn't mind the delay but insisted on proof that he had paid.

"My tag expired Tuesday," he explained. "That's why I wanted a receipt, to show at least I tried."

The problem caused a day of confusion in the state capital, where state officials offered conflicting accounts of what happened and who was to blame.

By early Monday evening, Florida's state technology office was attributing the problem to a Tampa company, Intermedia Communications, that was trying to add capacity to its network.

"A technical problem set off a chain reaction," cutting off computer access to driver information, said Nicole Devenish, spokeswoman for the technology office.

But earlier in the day, state agencies pointed fingers at three telecommunications companies: Sprint, Oracle and Intermedia.

"We just don't know anything, including when it will be fixed," Bob Sanchez, spokesman for the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, said late Monday afternoon.

He said computer access to driver and motor vehicle information was cut off to about 100 of 240 tax collector and other offices that deal in registration and tag and title services.

Sanchez said he was told by department computer technicians that there was an overnight effort to upgrade the computer network by installing fiber-optic cables.

"Somehow it did not get completed," Sanchez said. The computer network is not overseen by his department, Sanchez said. Another state agency, the Department of Management Services, was supposed to be working on the problem. But that agency could not provide any information on Monday.

In a memorandum sent to all tax collectors and license plate agencies, state Division of Motor Vehicles Director Tom Joyce suggested the agencies use alternative methods, but not to process temporary license plates.

The computer glitch struck at a time when Gov. Jeb Bush has pledged to make government more efficient and use technology to speed up services for citizens.

About 900 people tried but couldn't get tags Monday in Pinellas County, said Carlos Thomas, chief deputy tax collector.

"Our people tried to screen paperwork," said Thomas. "Those who wanted to make an appointment (for tag work) were given one, and those who wanted to go ahead and pay will be processed and mailed right away."

Pinellas tag office computers were out of service for as little as four hours at the Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard office in Clearwater to almost nine hours at the South County and Auto Club South locations in St. Petersburg.

Sally Daniel, executive director of the Hernando Tax Collector's Office, said the amount of incomplete work there mounted all day, with more than 50 applications left for processing when the phone lines again were activated.

"We've only been up about 30 minutes all day," Daniel said at 4 p.m. Monday. "We're going to be busy tomorrow. We already know it. We're planning on it."

Pasco County Tax Collector Mike Olson said the computer glitch hasn't kept residents from getting their tags, although they had to wait a little longer.

"We can process these things without using the computer," Olson said. His staffers relied on more primitive means to give customers their new tags.

"They had to type the registration on a typewriter," Olson said. Once the computer system is operational, his staff will go back and add the new registrations, he said.

In Citrus County, the computers were down when the Inverness tag office opened at 8 a.m., and stayed that way for the next two hours, according to Peggy Worley, supervisor of the tag department. Some customers left paperwork and arranged to pick uptheir tags later; others asked staff to mail them the completed documents.

The Crystal River satellite office never regained computer service.

Hillsborough County's tag computers were taken down over the weekend but were supposed to be up by the time the offices opened at 8 a.m., said Preston Trigg, spokesman for Tax Collector Doug Belden. That didn't happen for an hour. "At about 1:30 there was a cable break. We have been down ever since ... and I don't know that we'll be up tomorrow."

Some tax collectors, including Belden, objected before the current tag system was put in place in January 2000, because tags could be processed offline under the old system. "You could take people's money and update files later. ... The new system has no capacity for offline transactions," Trigg said.

"So when the system goes down we can't really do anything. We're dead in the water," Trigg said. "The state said, "This system will never crash so you don't need the offline capability.' But we know all computers crash."


-- Doris (nocents@bellsouth.net), January 09, 2001

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