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  High Cost of Year 2000

By Brooke A. Masters
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 17, 1998; Page V5

Arlington County's costs for fixing the computer bug related to the year 2000 continue to rise, drawing criticism from some civic activists who say the county's efforts are too little too late.

This spring, the County Board set aside $11 million to deal with replacing and upgrading computers and software that will experience problems when the century changes because their date functions record the year in two digits rather than four.

But at a work session last week, county officials said the cost is likely to climb past $15 million for software and hardware. That's because a more detailed study of the issue discovered more potential problems and contractors are much in demand and are raising their prices, said Wanda Gibson, acting director of the Office of Technology and Information Systems.

Alexandria's Y2K problems are much smaller, officials there say, largely because the city decided in 1987 to eliminate its mainframe and switch its programs to networked personal computers. In the years that followed, the city wrote or bought new software and hardware that largely avoided the date problem.

In Arlington, the technology office did a preliminary survey of its major computer software and found that 42 percent of applications need parts of their computer code rewritten by county staff or upgraded by the original vendors, 16 percent of applications will have to be replaced, 19 percent are obsolete and 23 percent of programs do not require any changes.

Gibson said her office is making critical programs -- such as the dispatch system for fire and police -- top priority in case the fix-up effort runs out of time. "There's going to be errors somewhere, but it's not going to be something that puts us out of business," she said.

The county has successfully upgraded its mainframe and about 1,700 of its 2,300 personal computers, and the rest should be finished by March. But county officials still are trying to determine the costs of testing and replacing computer chips embedded in everything from elevators to cars and security systems. Many of those chips probably will not be affected by the date problem, but finding the ones that will be affected will take time.

"Nobody has any idea what that problem is going to cost," Gibson said.

That uncertainty, and the rising cost of fixing county software, has drawn sharp criticism from the Arlington Republican Party. "Clearly, we've started about two years too late. If everything falls into place, they barely sneak under the wire," said Michael D. Lane, who is running for a seat on the County Board against Chris Zimmerman (D).

But Zimmerman, the board's chairman, said he believes the board acted responsibly by setting aside $11 million in the current budget. "That's our down payment. The cost will be higher [because] what we're trying to do is not only deal with [the year 2000] but also move ahead and get state-of-the-art technology," he said.

Alexandria is spending $200,000 to deal with dating problems in its computer system for tracking criminal cases, and several other maintenance and upgrade efforts will address the 2000 computer problems as part of other projects. Among the computer programs that are being upgraded are the city's payroll/personnel system, the police dispatch computer and the security system at the jail. Fixing those systems is budgeted at more than $1.6 million, but much of the costs are unrelated to the date problem.

The city also has looked at the issue of embedded computer chips and determined that most of the problems are minor -- city-owned elevators and cars will be largely unaffected, and the traffic signal system already is being upgraded, using $2 million in federal and state grants and $500,000 in city money, according to the approved budget.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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