Florida County Looks Ahead at One-Stop Information Shopping

The citizens of Pinellas County, Fla., are ravenous for government information. Last year they dialed into "Rlink," the county's mainframe-based online information service, 7 million times, searching for information ranging from tax and court records to child support and traffic-ticket accounting information. "People love the dial-up," said A.J. Leiser, director of management information systems for Pinellas County, where the cities of Clearwater and St. Petersburg are located. "To get information, they don't have to park and stand in line," Leiser said.

But the system has its limits, for the public and for county employees who also need access to mainframe data. For one thing, people must acquire special county-provided software to access the system. Also, each agency database must be searched separately, preventing queries across databases and tying up mainframe cycles. And Rlink permits only a limited set of query functions, sending some information seekers back to tried-and-true-and all too costly-human interfaces.

To improve on Rlink and to get their electronic house in order, officials in Pinellas County have launched an ambitious effort, called Vision 2000, to create an integrated information and data architecture for the county. The plan, which is expected to cost more than $20 million over the next seven years, calls for developing common financial, personnel and e-mail systems across county offices. An Oracle Corp. database platform will be developed to link the databases of various county agencies, including the county commissioners, property appraiser, sheriff, tax collector, state attorney and supervisor of elections. The system, which would use the county's existing 4,000 PCs, would be tied together via an enterprise intranet that can be navigated with a common World Wide Web browser.

"If Vision 2000 turns out the way we envision it, it makes possible one-stop shopping in the county," Leiser said. "If we have a common database and browsers, a person can come in, pay his water bill, get his building permit [and] check on his traffic fine all in one spot at one service counter. They won't be walking all over downtown Clearwater any more."

With any luck, Vision 2000 will result in a better-run government as decision-makers gain easy access to information that had been tucked away in proprietary files they might not have known about. "If we need statistics now, we have to go to programmers to get the data," said Ken Nelson, a deputy trial court administrator in charge of information systems for the judicial circuit that includes Pinellas County. "We need to be able to query the data ourselves. If we need to know every person who has come through the court system for a certain type of offense, we should be able to get it when we need it, not three weeks later."

Somewhere in the county's files there is enough information to pinpoint every house with a green Chevy pickup, Nelson said. Combining that sort of information in a geographic information system database could be a great help to the police officers on the street. "We need to be able to supply the information to the officer wherever they are so they can act upon it," Nelson said.

In general, Vision 2000 will "look at [Pinellas County's] data as a whole and eliminate redundancy," said Jim Lord, who oversees information systems policy for departments under the Pinellas County Commission. The county has identified 11 separate address databases that can be centralized. "We expect to get some productivity gains because we are limiting data maintenance efforts," Lord said.

The MIS department, whose budget for next year is $11.4 million, also expects to reduce its costs because programmers will not have to keep up with dozens of programs designed for individual agency needs. Instead, off-the-shelf software will be used wherever possible, rather than in-house products.

Pinellas County officials said they are able to attempt this integration effort because the county has benefited from cooperation among separately elected agency officials. Those officials, from the county commissioners to the property appraiser to the sheriff, are all represented on a countywide data-processing board, which hires the MIS director and staff.

"We don't have a lot of the turf wars that historically so many of the counties have had among separately elected constitutional officers," said Fred Marquis, county administrator. "Other counties have had constant fights over information sharing and all sorts of stuff."

-- Vicki White is a free-lance writer based in Inverness, Fla. She can be reached at [email protected]


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