Manassas Puts Y2K Trouble-Shooting Into Overdrive
By Libby Copeland
When Manassas acquired a new software package to manage its finances in January 1997, one of the city's requirements was that the software be Y2K ready. With the end of the century still three years away, the city seemed to be on track for beating the technological problem known as the millennium bug.
Since then -- with just eight months to go -- the software package Manassas bought from HTE Inc. has created what one senior city official called the "conversion from hell."
The billing cycles for real estate taxes, personal property taxes and vehicle license decals all have been delayed. Manassas also has been grappling with the whole range of Y2K concerns -- from upgrading software and hardware to making sure that equipment ranging from traffic signals to gas pumps will be working come Jan. 1, 2000.
The Y2K, or year 2000, problem stems from computer programs that, until recently, expressed the year in two digits. The programs would work until 12/31/99, but would read 1/1/00 as Jan. 1, 1900.
Thirty years ago, computers could not store as much data as today's machines, and so an extra two digits to write out a year -- 1999 -- took up too much space, and programmers wrote software that recognized only the last two numbers. Few computer experts figured the same software would be used for so long.
Since the beginning of this year, Manassas has been in Y2K overdrive. Two task forces, a slew of departments and about 30 people now are devoted to the issue, said Vice Mayor John P. Grzejka. The city plans to devote part of every newsletter to educating the public for the millennial moment.
"The emphasis is, the clock's running and it's time to make sure we have all our ducks in a row," said Grzejka, who also chairs the City Council's Finance Committee.
In finance, the city is finishing the software conversion for its tax system, a task that has been unexpectedly arduous and time-consuming because the provider, HTE, must first adapt the software to Virginia tax laws. Manassas is the first municipality in the state to use HTE, a Florida-based company that specializes in software applications for small- and medium-size cities.
"It's a major learning process," said Finance Director Pat Weiler, adding that she hopes all the glitches will be worked out by the end of August, when personal property billings are sent. Still, Weiler said, it may be a couple of years before staff members who work with the software are comfortable with it.
Susan Winokur, manager of Information Technology, and Police Chief John J. Skinner have had their hands and schedules full with a mixed bag of mammoth tasks and minutiae. They must upgrade PCs, mainframes and software in City Hall, check for embedded computer chips in such devices as elevators, gas pumps and police cars, check traffic signals and road crossings, and upgrade the police force's computerized mobile emergency system to be sure that none crashes at the end of the year.
Winokur said Manassas is about 90 percent ready for 2000, and hopes to be 97 percent ready by October or November. She reserves the final 3 percent for unforeseen problems that may be due to outside vendors and may not become evident until the final days of the year.
"We're all dependent on whatever happens down the line. I call it the domino effect," Winokur said.
Meanwhile, the city's utilities staff has been on a time line to be Y2K compliant by June 30 -- the deadline set by the American Public Power Association, which represents municipal utilities. About 15,000 customers in the Manassas area depend on city utilities for electricity, water and sewer. Workers have been replacing and "patching" software and hardware. The department is about 85 percent compliant, said Frank Cox, electric utility assistant director.
Manassas has established two task forces: one geared at making internal technological fixes, headed by Winokur, and one designed to provide outreach and assistance to the community, which has been headed by outgoing City Manager John Cartwright. In the event of malfunctions with gas pumps, Cartwright told the City Council recently that Manassas plans to keep three weeks worth of fuel on hand for city vehicles.
Precisely what will happen when 1999 rolls over to 2000 is anyone's guess. And even if the city does all it can to be ready, that may not be enough. What Winokur calls the "domino effect" may not become evident until the new year comes -- or even after. Winokur said there are a number of potentially problematic dates in 2000, which is a leap year.
"It doesn't really end on Jan. 3," Winokur said, referring to the first Monday after New Year's, when the extent of Y2K damage will be assessed. "So ask me what I'm doing in the year 2001. I don't know. Hopefully not dealing with Y2K issues."
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company