GAO: Y2K Could Bring D.C. to a Halt
By David A. Vise
District residents face a "significant risk" that the city's computer problems associated with the year 2000 will disrupt schools, the police department, the delivery of health care services and a range of other programs, according to a federal report slated for release today on Capitol Hill.
The study by the General Accounting Office warns that the District's late start in addressing a maze of complex technology problems has left it lagging behind other jurisdictions. It also warns that despite city officials' efforts to address the potential problems in recent months, glitches created by older computers that use only two digits to identify the year and therefore will read the year 2000 as "1900" may cause havoc in the District next year.
"The District may be unable to effectively ensure public safety, collect revenue, educate students and provide health care services," the GAO study says. "As a result, the District faces a significant risk that vital services will be disrupted."
In contrast to Maryland, Virginia and area county governments that began their year 2000, or Y2K, computer repair efforts a few years ago, the District did not focus on the issue until last summer. City officials, who agree with the study's gloomy assessment, said yesterday they have budgeted $31 million to address computer issues this year and requested an additional $111.5 million in emergency technology aid from the Clinton administration.
Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), who will oversee a congressional hearing on the District's Y2K computer problems today, said the federal government needs to provide additional support to the city. Davis also said there is no way to avoid at least some disruptions in D.C. operations, given the city's late start in dealing with the computer problems.
"They are going to be mailing checks out to people and stuff will be all screwed up," said Davis, chairman of the House Government Oversight subcommittee on the District. "It is hard to find a city that is this far behind at this stage. One of the reasons you hold these hearings is to let everyone know what may be coming.
"We are going to have to step in very quickly to turn this around, and it is going to have to be moved up the priority list. Federal aid is going to have to be brought to bear."
Davis said he wants public safety, utilities and other key areas addressed, even if some conspicuous computer problems remain.
"The way they process parking tickets may not be fixed," Davis quipped. "That is fine with me."
Mary Ellen Hanley, the District's Y2K program manager, said yesterday that the federal assessment of the city's potential computer problems is accurate. She said the city's primary emphasis is on developing plans to prevent a breakdown in the delivery of services to residents.
Hanley said that by next month, the District will have more than 300 IBM consultants working on the issue. However, she said, the District has not budgeted enough money to pay the consultants for the duration of this year and needs federal assistance.
The city's contingency plans focus on 16 critical agencies, including those affecting public safety, health and social services, education and finances. For example, if computers malfunction and are unable to process unemployment checks, Hanley said, the city will hire an outside vendor to do the job or use a manual system to type the checks.
"Our number-one strategy for all agencies and services for the citizens is contingency planning," Hanley said. "We know we are at risk, and we always were, so we had to do something‚. ... We will walk each agency through a test."
Hanley characterized the GAO analysis of the city's potential computer problems as having the "proper amount of risk in it, especially given the late start."
The District's inspector general warned in a letter to Davis and others late last month that D.C. police computer systems are at risk of failing to share information accurately with FBI data systems, and that the lack of an automated contracting system could cause problems in delivering unemployment benefits.
The letter also said that D.C. General Hospital is working closely with the Y2K program office to try to ensure that plans are in place to avoid a disruption in medical services.
The city will launch a campaign next month aimed at informing residents about ways to deal with potential difficulties, Hanley said.
"You can do the marauder approach and move to the mountains and take everyone, including your mother-in-law, and hole up for a year," she said. "Or you can buy four weeks' worth of water, put $100 in your pocket and make sure you are safe in your home."
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