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Va. Computer Repair Cost Doubles

By Ellen Nakashima
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 15, 1997; Page B05

RICHMOND, Oct. 14—Legislative auditors warned today that Virginia will have to come up with at least $55 million more than planned to make sure that state computer systems are retooled for the year 2000 -- and said the next governor should make the task a priority.

If not, audit agency officials warned, driver's licenses could go unrenewed, tax refunds unmailed and criminal background checks unmade. All told, fixing the problem will cost at least $100 million, double what state officials estimated six months ago.

"The next governor's going to be accountable for any breakdowns in state computer systems," said Philip A. Leone, director of the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission. "So he had better start thinking about how he's going to pay for this stuff. It's not glamorous, but it's the price of providing the citizens of Virginia high-quality services."

The problem results from storing dated information in state computers with only two digits for the year. For example, 1997 would be entered as "97" because the computer is programmed to assume that the first two digits of a year are "19." That means that the computers would read the year 2000 as 1900, creating errors in all sorts of calculations, from ages for retirees, to amounts due on tax refunds, to when to erase data.

Fixing the problem requires changing millions of lines of computer code. In some cases, especially with older systems, it's more efficient to simply buy new software, officials said.

Virginia is not alone in facing such a computer repair problem. Maryland officials recently estimated it will cost their state $101 million, and District officials hope to replace computer systems that handle finances, taxes and purchasing. Otherwise, they say that $25 million will be needed to fix the problems.

At a time when Virginia legislative analysts have estimated the state will need an additional $1.5 billion over the next two years to cover such items as new teachers and Medicaid growth, both gubernatorial candidates -- Democrat Donald S. Beyer Jr. and Republican James S. Gilmore III -- are pushing pricey tax relief plans.

Beyer, the state's lieutenant governor, has proposed a tax credit of up to $250 for families earning as much as $75,000 to offset the personal property tax they pay on their cars and trucks. His plan would cost $1 billion over five years.

Gilmore, a former state attorney general, proposes to exempt from the property tax the first $20,000 in value of a car or truck, costing $1.6 billion to $3 billion over five years.

Both men have said they are confident that economic growth will pump more than enough money into state coffers to cover all the needs, and tax relief, too. Still, they vowed to make repairing the computer problem a top priority.

"We do have to fix it," Beyer said. "I don't think it's negotiable."

"Jim Gilmore's committed to finding a solution," campaign spokesman Mark Miner said. "We want to make sure that state government is running efficiently."

But legislators are not as sanguine.

"The commonwealth has pressing needs in education, transportation and mental health," said Sen. Joseph V. Gartlan Jr. (D-Fairfax), a member of the Senate Finance Commmittee and the legislative audit panel. "To have to bite this year 2000 bullet, too, really creates an additional problem."

The audit report, prepared by the Gartner Group consulting firm, also pointed out a flaw in the state's current approach: There is no central office with authority to ensure that agencies make the computer repairs necessary.

The administration of Gov. George Allen (R), which has worked on the problem for a year and a half, has set up a council on information management to monitor the progress of the state's 130 agencies in fixing the problem. Council director Hudnall Croasdale acknowledged that he does not have authority to ensure that agencies make the repairs. That would require legislative action, administration officials said.

Administration officials this month will release their estimate, based on agency reports, of what fixing the problem will cost. Secretary of Administration Michael Thomas said the number released by the legislative audit panel does not seem out of line, although some individual estimates appear high. For example, Virginia Tech has placed repair costs at $19.1 million, while the University of Virginia's estimate is only $4.4 million.

Commission members were concerned that the longer it takes to fix the date problem, the more it will cost, because high-priced computer consultants will be in great demand and will raise their prices as the calendar approaches 2000.

"It's an expensive program," said Del. Harry J. Parrish (R-Manassas). "But it's something that we have to do because we're up against a deadline. It can't slip."

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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