Special Reports

Computer costs up again

Tacoma Public Utilities officials, baffled for months by computer system bugs and besieged by customer billing complaints, will spend another $281,240 for a consultant to help them fix an array of problems in their section of the city's new, $50.6 million computer system.

Tuesday evening the Public Utility Board approved the emergency, four-month contract with TUI Consulting Inc., the same firm the city paid $27 million to help install the new system.

TUI actually began doing the work April 1 under the authority of Business Systems Information Director David Otto and Utilities Director Mark Crisson.

Although the money wasn't budgeted, Crisson said Tacoma Public Utilities could handle the expense.

In the past few months, the utility system has added 19 customer service representatives and taken a number of other steps, including redesigning some bills to make them more readable, in an effort to make life easier for customers, spokeswoman June Summerville said.

"We're making some headway - actually quite a bit," Crisson told the board. "But I think we can make more."

Putting TUI software experts to work on issues ranging from computer meter reading errors to billing problems should clear up the situation by the end of July, Otto told Utility Board members during a pre-meeting study session.

Doing the work in-house with no additional help would take at least through December, he said.

Utility Board members listened sympathetically to Otto's plight - the need to solve customer problems while finding and exterminating bugs in a massive citywide computer system that's barely six months old.

But they also grilled him on whether he'd be back anytime soon for more money.

City Council members, weary of mounting computer system costs and complaints from users and customers almost since the day it was turned on last October, have made it clear they want the money drain to stop and the promised savings in time and better customer service to start.

"The whole idea is to get this fixed quickly, rather than having some customers still hanging out there with some problems that we'd all like to get fixed," Otto told Utility Board members. ... I can't say this is the last planned time that I'll be back here. But I'm hoping this is the last unplanned time.

The soup-to-nuts computer system - which handles city functions from utility billing to budgeting to payroll to purchasing - was budgeted at $45 million, with a $5 million contingency. When installation was completed, the final cost was $50.6 million.

TUI got about $27 million of that, plus a $1.7 million "follow-on" contract for work this year on the city's budgeting system, Otto said.

Both Otto and Crisson told Utility Board members there was no real alternative to spending the additional money and no real alternative to TUI as the contractor.

Under this latest contract, the rate for each computer expert will be $116 an hour, plus $90 a day in expenses for those who come from out of town.

The utilities' customer service telephone lines were swamped with 173,000 calls - 25 percent more than normal - from January through March. The calls hit their peak in March, with 65,094 calls, customer service operations manager Lori McCaughan said. The average wait time was 17 minutes. As a result, nearly 24 percent of callers hung up without talking to anyone.

But wait times dropped dramatically early this month when nine new customer service representatives began taking calls, McCaughan said.

Even so, she told the board, "We aren't anywhere near where we should be."

Crisson has said from the start that he has faith in the system and urged its naysayers to be patient. Its complexities require a lot of adjustment on the part of users and customers, Crisson has said.

Otto thinks so, too.

"It's a huge, huge system made up of thousands of modules," he said. Getting things right might take time, he added, but the system will last the city for years.

Kris Sherman: 253-597-8659