Remember stories about the Defense Department's spending $400 apiece on hammers and $600 each on toilet seats? Turns out the Pentagon's accounting practices distorted the actual cost of those items. But the City of Philadelphia has no similar excuse for the spendthrift way it has used taxpayers' money to upgrade its computer systems.
A review of technology-upgrade projects by the city showed that the most critically needed improvements have been plagued by cancellations, contractor disputes, years of delays, and escalating costs. Staff writer Claudia Vargas reported that just four projects have cost $21 million more than original estimates.
Here are some examples:
In 2014, Mayor Michael Nutter announced the beginning of a $4 million project called Electronic Commercial Licensing, Inspection, and Permit Services Enterprise, or eCLIPSE, which would allow residents and contractors to apply online for permits. The rather lengthy moniker is fitting for a project that not only failed to meet its December 2015 completion date, but whose price tag has jumped to at least $10.7 million.
Licenses and Inspections Commissioner David Perri blames the delays on the city's adding items to the initial contract. He also argues that the eCLIPSE system, although only half-complete, has saved the city $12 million by helping to identify tax delinquents. But what about the millions in owed taxes that have not been collected because eCLIPSE is taking so long to complete?
Also in 2014, the Nutter administration launched the OnePhilly initiative to put all the city's personnel, pension, payroll, and benefits data in one system. Ciber Inc. of Colorado had the winning bid to lead the $15.3 million project, which was given a July 2015 completion date. Two years and $19.3 million later, the project isn't finished, and Ciber has filed for bankruptcy.
In 2006, the city Board of Revision of Taxes signed a contract with Colorado Custom Ware Inc. to implement a new Computer Assisted Mass Appraisal (CAMA) system. Five years and $4.3 million later, the contract was terminated before the job was completed.
After creating an Office of Property Assessment, the Nutter administration in 2015 budgeted $4.7 million to revive the CAMA project. Thomson Reuters won the bid, but later said it couldn't start the work before September 2018. Thomson Reuters was replaced in April by Tyler Technologies, which bid $7 million to have CAMA operating by December 2019.
It's not unusual to see big technology projects fail or exceed budget. An analysis by the Standish Group, which analyzes public and private-sector technology projects, showed that only 13.6 percent of more than 1,200 government projects it reviewed between 2012 and 2016 finished on time and on budget. Thirty percent were listed as compete failures.
Anyone with a home computer knows how difficult and expensive it can be to keep up with advancements in technology. It's likely that by the time the city finishes its planned upgrades, they may be obsolete. Greater care must be taken with taxpayer money. Spending millions of dollars to figure out that a contractor has promised more than he can deliver isn't very smart.