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Published: Monday, 10/22/2007

Toledo's software spurs complaints

BY TOM TROY
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Shultz Shultz
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Several Toledo employees have weighed in on the debate over whether the city should expand a controversial $5.5 million billing program that began in its utilities department early last year - or pursue Mayor Carty Finkbeiner's proposal for more encompassing, and costly, financial software.

They include employees who handle water and sewer bills.

The citywide package Mr. Finkbeiner envisions would cost $8 million to $12 million.

Councilman Betty Shultz, who chairs the council's information services committee, supports the SAP Americas Inc. billing program that Toledo's Department of Public Utilities installed in early 2006. A hearing about it has been scheduled for 1 p.m. today.

Mrs. Shultz accused the city's finance department of trying to dump SAP "because they didn't pick it."

Officials have talked about expanding it into a citywide program. Buying a system other than SAP will create a problem the city is trying to correct, the proliferation of computer programs that don't interface, she said.

The SAP program, though, has generated complaints for months, including those raised late last week in three letters written by employees of the utilities department.

"It has been live for 18 months and there are over 50 problems, many of them income-producing procedures, that consultants are still trying to make happen," according one letter, signed by five employees in the utilities' legal department. "This system is not able to identify accounts that have unpaid accumulated balances over $200 for turn-off.

"SAP is not user-friendly and is so overly complex that many of what were simple procedures in the old software now take 40 to 60 steps to accomplish," the letter said.

Another letter signed by 16 people raises other complaints, including an allegation that "the director, commissioner and upper management do not utilize the system at all so they truly do not know the mess we are in."

Another employee, senior utilities clerk Kim Kubicek, sent in a separate letter. She wrote that department employees are virtually "self-taught."

She said in an interview that the program has time-consuming procedures and creates opportunities for errors.

An order to turn off water supply to a home irrigation system, for example, fails to identify the irrigation system and leads the technician to believe the domestic water supply is to be turned off.

Bob Williams, utilities department director, defended the SAP system. He said it is an improvement over the previous one, adopted in the early 1980s.

Though the old system had limited applications, employees felt it was easier to use.

Mr. Williams said he was surprised by the letters because he'd been meeting with the union to address concerns. "People are getting the correct bills. We even added a refuse fee to the system. I'm not saying the system's perfect, but for the most part, the system's been working," he said.

City Council on March 30 approved creation of a $5.50 monthly trash fee, with the option of a $2.50 discount for people who pledge to recycle. Because utilities bill every dwelling in Toledo, the new fee was attached to water and sewer bills beginning in July, and the revenue is transferred to the general fund.

"The 1983 system was custom-built. Now the cost of building custom software is astronomical," he said. "I could not have put a refuse fee in under the old system."

Mr. Williams was on the committee that selected SAP and recalls that it was purchased with the potential of being expanded to include the whole city. The decision was made under former Mayor Jack Ford.

"We wanted a software [program] that was flexible enough to do our billing, but also did not want to have to customize the software. We wanted it off the shelf, but also expandable to do other things," he said.

Mr. Finkbeiner has called for bids to be taken for an "enterprise resource planning program" designed to unify all the functions of a business or government under one system.

Councilmen decided last week to delay voting on that proposal until Oct. 30.

A possible alternative to SAP is PeopleSoft, which is being adopted by Lucas County as its financial accounting software.

Finance Director John Sherburne said SAP could potentially end up as the city's enterprise resource planning package, but that it should have to compete with other programs first.

"I don't know if SAP is the best supplier for a financial package for the city," Mr. Sherburne said.

Councilman George Sarantou, chairman of council's finance commiteee, said he supports putting the potentially $12 million city investment out for bid. He said he was surprised by the employees' letters, which he noted were signed and unsolicited.

He said he doesn't remember having agreed that buying SAP for utilities was committing the city to using SAP for the finance department as well.

Contact Tom Troy at:

tomtroy@theblade.com

or 419-724-6058.



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