Special Reports

City hires same group for upgrades

Tacoma Public Utilities board members agreed Wednesday to pay TUI Consulting another $400,000 for work on the city’s troubled new computer system.

The latest contract was approved 4-0. It brings the total amount the private Tacoma-based tech company has received from the city for work on the system to more than $32 million.

About six or eight TUI consultants will help the city install software upgrades designed to improve the system and fix problems. City employees could have done the job by themselves. But they decided to seek help to speed up the work and mitigate the risk of what represents the first major round of upgrades for key components of the system, Linda Carlton, assistant director of the city’s business information systems department, told board members.

The project involves more than 60 so-called support packs and represents thousands of changes, Carlton said.

System upgrades aren’t unusual, but the city has more to install now than normal – in part because it delayed making some upgrades last year as workers struggled to stabilize the system.

The work is expected to be finished by about the middle of May, Carlton said.

Board members expressed more confidence in this contract than with the last TUI contract they approved in October.

The company competed for this contract, unlike the previous follow-up contracts the city has awarded it.

The city sought proposals from 20 vendors and selected TUI in part because of the company’s experience with the version of SAP software the city uses, as well as its familiarity with Tacoma’s system.

A 10-member selection committee of city and utility employees made the recommendation after reviewing nine proposals.

Board Chairman Jake Fey noted that utility staff responded to some of his concerns by “tightening” the language in the contract and making TUI’s responsibilities more specific. The contract includes deadlines for specific jobs, a 10 percent retention of payment and a warranty from TUI, Carlton said.

“It makes us more comfortable,” Fey said.

The city also is trying to spread out contract work to other companies. It’s planning to award another contract for on-call computer support work to three companies, including TUI Consulting. City officials are working with the other two now to get them familiar with the system, Carlton said.

Tacoma’s handling of the computer project has brought the city a black eye.

A four-part News Tribune series published earlier this month documented problems the city has encountered since turning on its system in late 2003, as well as many of the mistakes that caused them.

The project was often referred to as costing $50 million, for instance. But an investigation found that the price tag for installing and operating the system will top $74 million by the end of the year. And rather than making the city more efficient, the system has forced the city to hire more employees.

The state auditor’s office cited problems with the computer project in its most recent audit of city government. Auditors recommended that Tacoma officials take several steps to solve the problems, including pursuing an independent audit of the system.

City leaders are working on a plan to conduct such an audit.

Jason Hagey: 253-597-8542