Special Reports

Computer eats city budget

Tacoma officials are eager to start work on a two-year budget, but they are struggling to get their new $51 million computer system to cough up key numbers - starting with how much money they have to spend.

Budget director Diane Supler said three weeks ago she expected to present council members with an updated revenue forecast during a study session Tuesday.

But that presentation was canceled, and Supler says she doesn't know when she'll be able to give two valuable pieces of information to the council with any degree of authority:

•A reliable estimate of how the city's general fund will end the 2003-04 biennium on Dec. 31.

•A revenue forecast that will tell council members how much money the city likely will have in its 2005-06 budget. Supler's last forecast, made two years ago, predicted the city would fall nearly $30 million short. Much about the economy, some positive, some negative, has changed since then, she said.

"We find problems on a daily basis, and part of that is getting the (computer) system to work for us," a frustrated Supler said Tuesday. "Every time we think we've identified all of the issues, something else happens in SAP (the system software)."

To the City Council, the lack of a reliable revenue forecast means being on the brink of writing a $336 million-plus two-year general fund budget without knowing how much money is likely to be in the bank.

"Part of the reason that we bought into this system is that we've got to have access to budget figures that will lead to more reasoned and sound decisions," rather than a last-minute balancing act, said Mayor Bill Baarsma.

"It's going to be a tremendous challenge and we've got to make these decisions based on accurate data, and she's not prepared to come forth with that," he said of Supler. "This obviously slows down the process."

To further complicate matters, the council approved a resolution approving a labor agreement with 284 Teamsters Union members Tuesday evening without numbers showing its cost.

The fiscal note that normally accompanies such resolutions was missing because Supler's staff - sprinting to get the budget work done - couldn't develop the necessary figures, City Manager Jim Walton told the council in a memo.

"Staff realizes the importance of Council understanding the fiscal impact of a contract prior to voting on the contract," Walton said. But he added that wasn't possible while the budget staff is busily "stabilizing the computer system" for integrated planning and developing city's 2005-06 budget.

City officials, knowing they'd likely face a huge gulf between the amount of general fund money the city has to spend over the next two years and the cost of services they want to provide, began their budget planning earlier than usual this year. Council members said they wanted to have a more "hands-on" role in the process and get advice from city staff and the public sooner than the usual 11th-hour budget-cutting frenzy.

By law, the council must pass a balanced budget by the end of the year.

In addition, Supler and her staff are working on a revenue forecast not just for the next two years, but for the next six.

The decisions the council makes this fall could affect the city far beyond the two-year budget cycle, she said.

While Supler says trouble with the city's new computer system has hampered her work, it's not the only factor. The city is doing budgeting a new way this year, and the department's outdated computer system, still being used for some work, crashed twice last weekend, she said.

More than a dozen city computer staff members are working to find and fix glitches in the new system so the budget staff can do their work, said business process manager Karen Walling.

"We have made it our highest priority," she said.

The city and its utilities went live with the integrated computer system last fall with high hopes that it would not only replace outdated computers, but that it would save time and money. But the system's start-up has been marred by glitches in payroll and billing and criticism among employees.

Since software vendor SAP doesn't have a stand-alone budget module, it's taken time to build enhancements and programs so all the pieces work together, Walling said.

Walling believes the city's vision of a fully integrated system will be rewarded with efficiency and better service in the long run.

"It's been a rough row to hoe, but we're committed," she said. "It's just a matter of patience. It takes time."

Supler says she knows that.

"But the question is, can we make up for lost ground and get ourselves back on track?" she asked.

Kris Sherman: The News Tribune