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City Clerk's Office struggling to enter the modern information age

Tuesday, February 1, 2000 by

Goal to retrieve documents from computers instead of file cabinets

City Clerk Shirley Brown's restarting an image program that has nothing to do with makeup and hair color but everything to do with making more than a million documents readily accessible to city staff and indirectly to citizens. This is a massive project to convert paper documents, some dating back well over a hundred years, to electronic files. "We average 900 requests a month for information–and this is the slow time of year," Brown tells In Fact Daily. "We expect it to be 1,500 a month when it picks up."

Right now employees of the City Clerk's Office use a computer to determine the location of a document, then go manually retrieve it, make and transmit copies as requested, and (hopefully) put the original document back in its rightful place. "The goal is to talk to you on the phone and e-mail you the document in seconds," Brown says. "We want to turn everyone in the clerk's office into research specialists."

Achieving that vision has been a painfully slow and frustrating process so far. The project got off to what turned out to be a false start well over a year ago. On Aug. 6, 1998, the City Council voted 7-0 to authorize a $419,324 contract with KPMG Peat Marwick LLP of Austin, which beat out six other companies to get the work. The hardware, software, training, implementation and one year of support and maintenance was to cost $188,366. Conversion of back files was to cost $199,842. An option to extend maintenance and support for up to two years would use the rest of the money. Brown wasn't hired by the City Council till several months later, in November 1998.

It is a complex project, taking myriad files, some in poor condition, and scanning them to create a record that could be easily located and quickly retrieved upon demand from a computer keyboard. Older, handwritten documents have to be typed. Hard-copy documents have to be put in good condition so they can be scanned, to create electronic, searchable documents. While some departments must keep documents for five to seven years, the City Clerk's Office has the goal of archival preservation–keeping documents forever. "Our goal is to be better caretakers of this information," Brown says.

The project got off to a stumbling start. The DocuPACT system produced by InterTech of Atlanta was put in place by March 1999, says Nancy Black, a senior manager with KPMG Consulting Inc. (successor to KPMG Peat Marwick). "The system itself was installed, configured, running, and accepted by the city last March, and KPMG was paid," she says. Black estimates that work cost about $170,000. The city's Information Systems Office then took over the administration of the system, Black says. Within two to three months, Black says, a problem cropped up, causing the server to crash–a problem that took about four months to solve. "KPMG was not brought in to help resolve this," Black says. Eventually the vendor supplied a patch to solve the problem but problems persisted.

Meanwhile, Black says, the backfile conversion process was started, with the work being performed by KPMG's subcontractor, a firm that "went belly up two to three months into the project." KPMG took over the conversion function, with the city using temporary employees to prepare documents for scanning, "but in no particular order," Black says. Some 200,000 documents had been scanned before a fatal flaw was discovered in the process, Brown says. There were problems with duplication of records, and documents were not well organized. Key-word indexes had to be entered so that searches for a particular subject could be located and retrieved, and this was not always done correctly. "They really blew it on scanning documents," Brown says. "They had neglected to fill in fields and could not find the documents (when trying to retrieve them)."

Ultimately the proverbial bullet was bitten and the project was halted. KPMG was brought back in to rebuild the hardware and software system. That was done "at no cost to the city," Black says. The city has now hired a supervisor to oversee the backfile conversion with the work being done by a team of three to four people working for KPMG, Black says. The renewed backfile conversion of an estimated 1.2 million documents has only recently begun again. Black estimates some 5,000 to 10,000 documents can be scanned per day, with work slowing for more complex documents such as maps and drawings. She said originally the backfile conversion was to have taken an estimated 14 months. "If we can do 150,000 documents per month, it will take eight to nine months," she said. "If we can do 200,000 it will take six months." The method used in scanning is to start with current documents and work back in time, decade by decade. "They want to go all the way back," Black says.

Brown says, "We're doing it in the perceived order of need," with ordinances and resolutions first, then contracts. The project has had the side benefit of causing the city to tighten up its document retention schedules and make sure that all departments get necessary items to the City Clerk's Office as required, Brown says. Contracts approved by the council are routinely monitored now to be sure the clerk's office gets copies when executed, she says.

"The ultimate goal is to have all this on a web site," Brown says. But that would entail another phase of work. "Our current contract stops at backfile conversion," Black says. She says KPMG did some design work for a public access system that would employ a duplicate repository outside the security firewall and accessible through a web site. "The part we are building is inside the firewall," Black says. She says KPMG already operates a more complex version of the same system the city will have through the firm's contract with the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission.

"KPMG is committed to get this done right for the city within what the city budgeted for it," Black says. Brown confirms that while the city lost time on the project, it will not be out any more money.

When this project is completed, the City Clerk's Office will be light years ahead of where it was and document access should be catapulted into the 21st century. "We're in an information era and we need to market better to be more successful," Brown says.

Interruption of development services planned during city office relocations

Shutdowns scheduled to start Feb. 10 and end Feb. 23

As employees of the city's Development Review and Inspection Department (DRID) and the inspection section of the Watershed Protection Department pack boxes and unplug computers for their move to One Texas Center, members of the development community should prepare to exercise patience–or plan a vacation–in mid-February.

Steve Wilkinson, operations manager for DRID, said employees would begin disconnecting telephones and computers Feb. 10. The plan is for the permit center and cashiers to be closed only on Friday, Feb. 11 and Monday, Feb. 14, he said. Development inspectors will be in the field, he said, but it may be impossible to call them from Feb. 11 through Feb. 14. The document sales office will be closed Feb. 11-14, Wilkinson said, and that office would only be doing zoning verifications on Feb. 10. Residential plan reviewers will be unavailable Feb. 7 through Feb. 14, he said.

The intake center will be closed Feb. 14 through Feb. 21, Wilkinson said. Feb. 21 is a city holiday ( Presidents' Day). The Planning Commission is scheduled to consider canceling its Feb. 22 meeting tonight. Researchers in the Development Assistance Center (DAC) will be out of pocket from Feb. 14 through Feb. 22. DAC planners should be available Feb. 14-Feb. 16, but will be moving their file system and reassembling it beginning Feb. 17. Those planners should be available again Feb. 23. Also, fiscal surety employees, who review and take in letters of credit, will not be available Feb. 17 through Feb. 22. Employees working on geographic information system (GIS) addressing will be available only on a limited basis on Feb. 11 and Feb. 14.

Theoretically, Wilkinson said, 380 people, their files, filing cabinets, phones, computers and other equipment, should be open for business at the new location on Feb. 23.

The part of the Planning, Environmental and Conservation Services Department that was previously housed in the annex has moved to 1011 San Jacinto.

SH130 alignment… Travis County commissioners are scheduled to consider the Environmental Impact Statement for what is called the "technically preferred route" for State Highway 130 at their meeting this morning. That route, which is preferred by the Texas Department of Transportation, is west of Decker Lake. Commissioners went on record two years ago as favoring the eastern alignment, on the other side of the lake. The meeting begins at 9 a.m. in the Stokes Building… Heavy Hitters… Rollingwood Mayor Thom Farrell will be the master of ceremonies at a Feb. 17 fund-raiser for 126th District Judge Ernest Garcia, who is running to keep the judgeship he got by appointment from Governor George Bush. Former Austin Mayor Roy Butler is providing the beer for the Republican shindig, which will be at the Zilker Clubhouse, beginning at 5:30 p.m.

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