Experts say local governments overconfident on Y2K

May 09, 1999|By BRENDAN KIRBY

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. - Administrators from Franklin County and its townships and boroughs contend they are on track to fix the so-called millennium bug, but independent experts warn they may be overconfident.

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Analysts who track year 2000 computer issues said local governments as a whole have lagged in the effort to make their computer systems ready.

"As far as we can tell, they're significantly worse than any other sector," said Leon A. Kappelman, a University of North Texas professor and head of the Y2K Working Group.

The computer glitch - which occurs in computer systems that recognize the year 2000 as 1900 - threatens to disrupt businesses, governments and institutions throughout the world.


"Local government at the city level are among the weakest spots," said Capers Jones, a nationally known Y2K expert who has written extensively on the subject.

On target

Government administrators throughout Franklin County say they have formed committees, sought assurances from manufacturers and replaced faulty equipment. Most said their governments will be ready within the next few months.

Franklin County Administrator John Hart said the county plans to install new computer systems in July and August, then test them the rest of the year.

"We're not making any assumptions," he said.

The county's municipalities also have been busy with Y2K issues.

"We had everything analyzed, tested," said Greencastle Borough Manager Ken Myers.

Waynesboro Borough Manager Lloyd Hamberger said the town has purchased and upgraded new computer systems and devised contingency plans.

"It's not something you want to run scared from," he said. "You cannot let it paralyze you."

For small governments, even modest Y2K expenses can strain budgets.

"I think spending $20,000 for computers is a major problem. It's $20,000 I wish I didn't have to spend," said Washington Township Manager Mike Christopher. "The machines work fine. But they won't work fine on 1/1/00."

Antrim Township Administrator Ben Thomas Jr. said the township has replaced several computer systems in the last two years. Many of them were due to be upgraded anyway.

"Since we have essentially new equipment, it eliminates most of the problems," he said. "We feel pretty comfortable."

Chambersburg Assistant Borough Manager David Finch said he has found that many of the risks associated with the year 2000 have been smaller than expected.

"The reality is, we've found very few items that will fail," he said. "I was much more worried at the start of the process than I am now. Had we done no checking, it wouldn't have interrupted anything to any great degree."


Experts who study year 2000 computer issues contend such confidence may not be warranted, however.

Many local governments have little or no funding and inadequate knowledge to attack the problem, said Jones, chief scientist of the Artemis Co.

"If the manufacturers have gone out of business or been acquired by someone else, they may not even be able to track them down," he said.

Even if they have gotten assurances, Kappelman said they often are of little value.

The problem is that the term "Y2K-compliant" has no universal definition, Kappelman said. Equipment may be OK in a vacuum but may fail in concert with other systems, he said.

Kappelman estimated that about a third of American companies have misrepresented their products.

"They're more interested in getting laws passed limiting their liability than fixing their problems," he said.

New computer systems might not be the answer either, Kappelman said. He cited a Gartner Group statistic that 81 percent of business software purchased this year will have some Y2K-related problem.

"Most of the upgrades you are going to buy are not going to help you," he said.

Kappelman said local governments need to get assurances in writing and they should also demand to see the results of Y2K tests the firms have conducted on their products.

Kappelman said government administrators, who usually do not have much technical knowledge, have received bad information.

"They have trusted their vendors too far. And they have trusted their own techies," he said.

Other experts are more optimistic.

Frederick Loomis, executive director of Pa2K, said Pennsylvania municipalities are getting the message. Pa2K was set up to educate to local government officials.

Loomis said much progress has been made since last December, when state officials sent Y2K guides to 2,500 local governments.

"I think they're stepping up to that issue very quickly," he said. "A year ago, I think, I would have said something different."

related story:

-- Localities follow different tracks to Y2K repairs

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