Paying Client/Server Dividends in Yakima Co.

Caught in a vise of tight information technology budgets and resistance to increasing taxes, many small city and county governments are struggling to keep pace with public demand for better services. This dilemma exists despite a record of positive financial and civic returns from investments in smaller, more efficient computer systems.

"There are simply too many challenges and not many people willing to pay the bills," said Martin Dunning, national sales manager for state and local governments at Mountain View, Calif.-based Sun Microsystems Inc. "Few small and medium-size government units have strategic plans."

But the difference between a stagnant and an effective IT plan is often not more money but good leadership energetically applied, experts say. "There needs to be a much better marriage between current technology and how it is applied to serve the public," said John Kost, former chief information officer for the state of Michigan and now senior vice president at McLean, Va.-based market research firm Federal Sources Inc. "Too often cities and counties are missing the key individual with the vision to make that happen."

The key person in Yakima County, Wash., is Carol Gibson, brought on board in December 1990 as the county's director of information systems. Under her leadership, the 190,000-person rural county has moved from a mainframe-based IS architecture to client/server in less than five years. The county has also installed a countywide network that is boosting customer service and expanding departmental and citizen access to information.

"We are now totally client/server and ready for the Year 2000," Gibson said. "I am hearing that many counties have not even started, and I worry that politically they simply may not be able to respond in time." In 1990 the county worked out a five-year plan and a funding package to make it a reality. The core of the plan was to create an integrated network, replace the aging mainframe with more flexible and less expensive servers, and leverage the investment to make information easier to get and less expensive to provide. Eliminating the mainframe and many Cobol-based applications in favor of Unix servers and desktop PCs not only rid the IS department of many high-maintenance applications, but it also saved a pot of money.

The annual maintenance fee for the Unisys mainframe was $400,000-38 percent of the operating budget at the time. Yakima is now paying about $50,000 in hardware maintenance costs for its primary Hewlett-Packard Co. 9000 servers and another $36,000 in operating system and middleware maintenance costs. The result: annual savings of more than $300,000 in net operating costs.

Pass-Along Savings

Some of the savings are being used to upgrade desktop systems. When Gibson took over, there was no ongoing program to replace aging desktops, so she created one in 1993. From time to time she is also able to supplement that budget with special allocations from the county council to retire more of the oldest systems. But Yakima is still playing catch-up. Of the 700 PCs now on county desktops, there remain quite a few 386 and even 286 PCs.

The new core server infrastructure consists of one HP 9000 Series 730, two HP 9000 Series 720s with HP portable NetWare, one HP 9000 Series 867 and two HP 9000 Model G40 systems allocated to geographic information systems. Another 18 Intel-based servers are connected to the backbone network-14 running Novell and four using Microsoft Corp.'s Windows NT Server.

The county IS department serves buildings scattered throughout the county. Nearby buildings are connected with fiber, the juvenile justice building a few miles away is connected via a T-1 line, and 56-kilobit/sec links connect most police departments and sheriff substations. The core network uses a 2-plus-gigabit backbone with switched Ethernet LAN segments to floors and departments, and a wiring infrastructure that can support 100-megabit Ethernet segments when the demand requires it.

A 1995 wiring plant upgrade, put in place in conjunction with new phone-system wiring, resulted in well-documented wiring closets that make tracking problems or changes far easier. "Users in remote offices can do everything users can do in the main building," said David Lantis, Yakima's communications director, including accessing the law enforcement system and financial management applications, sending electronic mail or finding other published information sources.

Lantis said Yakima aggressively puts resources on the Internet that people would want to find, such as the CD-Law server connected to the network's backbone. Rather than going through piles of books, it is pretty easy to look up statutes on-line, he said.

The county debuted its World Wide Web site in April 1996 and plans to expand the information available to citizens, businesses and departments via the Internet. Internet access can go a long way toward giving people faster access to the data they need while reducing the demand on county employees. One of the first major publishing efforts was to put property tax assessments on the Net. Users can pull up the first few lines of the legal description of their property and the tax assessments of any piece of property.

Lantis concedes that not everyone was happy to have their property values on the Net, but he reminds them that such information was already free to whomever wanted to come down to the courthouse. Another project on the books is to revamp the building and permitting applications by mid-1997. Once that is on-line, Lantis said the county will move to enable permit submissions via Web page forms and to enable builders to track the status of those permits.

So despite its size, Yakima has an IS infrastructure that would be the envy of many similar counties. And the difference may not be budget but brainpower. "Visionary leadership is an absolute necessity," reminded Federal Sources' Kost. "The wealth to pay for it simply makes everything easier."

Barry D. Bowen is an industry analyst and writer with Bowen Group Inc., based in Bellingham, Wash. He can be reached at xeno@bgroup.com.

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