Special Reports

A bit of good news on city computers

Tacoma could break even on its $50 million-plus computer investment in 8 1/2 years and see a 1 percent return on its money in 10 years, according to a consultant's conservative estimate.

A more optimistic analysis shows a break-even point in as few as six years, with an 8 percent return on the city's investment in 10 years, according to a report presented Thursday afternoon to the City Council's Government Performance and Finance Committee by Peppers & Rogers Group

"I like the fact that you were conservative," Councilman Rick Talbert told the consultants. "We can only hope that the timelines will be shorter and the savings greater."

Both Talbert and Councilman Mike Lonergan, the only two committee members in attendance, seemed pleased with the results of the study of the city's 6-month-old, citywide computer system.

"It's good news for the taxpayers and people who have been frustrated as users," Lonergan said. "There is light at the end of the tunnel."

The so-called return-on-investment study was done by Peppers & Rogers after months of complaints and questions about the new computer system from Tacoma Public Utilities customers, city vendors and city employees.

It was an independent assessment, although it was financed by SAP, the German company from which the city bought the software, said Dave Legus, a senior consultant at Peppers & Rogers.

SAP would not divulge the cost of the study.

"The benefit of this whole process is the city knows exactly where it needs to go" to counter an estimated $4.2 million in increased costs, Legus told the committee.

"It is undeniable that the implementation of this technology has been difficult on many users of the system," the consultants concluded in a nine-page summary written after four weeks of system investigation and interviews with more than 40 people.

To help solve those issues, the consultants recommended more training "and a management program to get users past their initial frustration and denial."

Angry customers of the city and its utilities complained loudly about the system for months after it was turned on last fall.

Hundreds of utility users couldn't understand their new bills and couldn't get through to customer service representatives when they called to ask about them. Some customers complained they didn't receive bills when they should have and that when they finally were billed, the amounts were for a much longer period of time than usual. That left them facing huge bills they couldn't pay and the threat of a utilities shutoff, many said.

Frustrated city employees said the system was unforgiving and that it took considerably longer to do many tasks.

Utilities Director Mark Crisson and City Manager Jim Walton urged patience, saying it would take time to get employees comfortable with using the system and to work the bugs out. But in the long run, they promised, it will provide faster and more-efficient city services and save money in personnel costs.

The Peppers & Rogers report will make it easier for city officials to tackle many of the problems, said Business Systems Information Department Director Dave Otto.

The city really had no choice but to replace its aging computer systems with state-of-the-art equipment, Peppers & Rogers concluded. The potential for breakdowns that could cost the city millions of dollars was great, the consultants said.

"The system is here," their report said. "It is time to get on board because going back is not an option.

Kris Sherman: 253-597-8659