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Computer Games 

Wednesday, May 6 1998
Part of Doris M. Ward's re-election campaign is a boast, made in campaign literature, that the San Francisco Assessor's Office "is now on track to having a fully modernized computer system." It would be difficult to find a statement less tethered to reality.

Three years ago, the state arranged to loan the San Francisco Assessor's Office millions of dollars so it could buy a new computer system that would alleviate some of the long-standing record-keeping problems the office had suffered, at least partly because of its 1960s-vintage data processing capabilities.

Ward's office pursued a new database configuration that would link the assessor with the tax collector, the controller, and other city agencies. In theory, such an "integrated-relational" database -- and, of course, the computers to run it -- would allow the income-producing and finance-monitoring arms of city government to be on the same information page, probably for the first time in history.

Revenues would increase. Labor costs would decrease. City departments could share information, monitor one another, and correct mistakes quickly and easily. The Assessor's Office would enter the information age, and bring much of city government along with it.

But that was just theory. In reality, a $4 million computer system recently purchased by Ward's office is on the brink of collapse and "out of control," according to city reports. In plain English, the system is not complete, the contract is in default, and the city is -- or should be -- frantic for a refund.

The new computer system was commissioned in early 1996 through a request for proposals. Ward chose Texas-based Easy Access Inc. to supply the new system, even though its proposal came in at $1 million higher than the lowest of the three proposals for the contract.

Ward signed the contract with Easy Access despite almost unanimous recommendations from her staff, experts from the city's Information Services Division, and former clients that she avoid the firm.

Days before Ward put the contract out for proposals, Kenneth P. Hahn, assessor of Los Angeles County, sent Ward a copy of a letter he had written complaining about Easy Access' reliability. "I will not recommend your product to others without a clear warning that product support is abominable," Hahn wrote.

The assessor from Montgomery County, Ohio, warned Ward not to use Easy Access. Dave Busse, the chief of real property in Ward's office, wrote that the Easy Access product demonstration "left me with a negative impression. ... I would not be in favor of the city adopting Easy Access." Controller Edward Harrington wrote that Easy Access' financial statements were "unaudited and meaningless" -- a circumstance raising questions about the firm's financial ability to carry out the contract.

Even so, Ward chose Easy Access. After the contract was signed, problems began popping up like Whack-A-Moles at Fisherman's Wharf.

The terms of the computer system contract required Easy Access to buy insurance and put up a performance bond -- that is, a guarantee the money to complete a project will be available, should a contractor be unable to perform -- for $1.4 million. When Easy Access was unable to buy insurance or post the bond, many members of a multidepartmental steering committee overseeing the computer project were in favor of terminating the contract. After all, insurance and bonds are basic financial protections; companies that can't provide them are almost routinely excluded from most government contracts.

But committee members bowed to Doris Ward's desire to keep doing business with Easy Access. Ward arranged for the city to spend $96,000 to buy a $1 million performance bond for Easy Access and waived the contractual requirement that Easy Access buy errors and omissions insurance, according to minutes of steering committee meetings.

But those highly unusual actions are not the only strange ways the city gave help to Easy Access.

The city's Information Services Division charged the assessor $1.8 million for assisting Easy Access as it installed its own software, city accounting records show. The city's ISD "experts" also hired a consulting firm, Topnotch Software Services, to help with the installation, at a budgeted cost of $444,000.

Even with nearly $2 million of city help, the Easy Access project is $800,000 over budget and nine months behind schedule, according to steering committee reports. "Phase I" -- bringing a portion of the assessor's database online -- was finally completed -- late -- in 1997. "Phase II," bringing a portion of the tax collector's database into the system, has been postponed time and time again, as deadline after deadline is missed.

Numerous bugs continue to plague the project. Steering committee minutes say that "Phase I does not communicate with Phase II" -- which means the system is frozen solid with a kind of electronic lockjaw. Almost as bad: The steering committee notes that sections of the Easy Access program are not Year 2000 compliant -- meaning, the new system could self-destruct in two years unless expensive reprogramming of this brand new software is purchased.

The thorniest problem with the new "integrated-relational" database is that it is neither "integrated" nor "relational." It does not link the assessor with other city departments, and its computing capabilities are hardly state-of-the-art.

Even though serious questions have been raised about whether the Easy Access program is technologically capable of providing true interconnection of the city's tax and finance records, Ward has gone out of her way to blame subordinates for the failures of Easy Access Inc. and to protect the Texas-based firm from criticism.

In January 1998, however, the firm's stream of failed promises finally forced the city attorney to declare the contract in default by issuing a letter, addressed to Easy Access, saying that the city will seek $1,000 per day in liquidated damages, until the project is complete. So far, Ward has refused to send the letter. And so far, she has not publicly acknowledged that the modernization project of which she brags has further incapacitated her office.


About The Author

Peter Byrne


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