Old tech gives way to new

County’s tech chief revamps info systems, with savings in mind

HUDSON — Columbia County government is poised to join 21st century technologically, thanks to groundwork intended to help a 19th century-style organization dependent on paper to a leaner, more modern operation. The person in charge of this sea change is Chief Technology Officer Randy Wheeler.

Hired last May as director of the county’s Managed Information Systems Department, Mr. Wheeler requested a title more descriptive of his duties, and in March the county Board of Supervisors obliged with his current title at no increase in salary. The board also agreed to hire Tyler Technologies to roll out a new computer system designed to replace data management tasks now done by hand. Tyler, a firm that specializes in creating information management software and systems for local governments, signed a contract in March aimed at upgrading from a hodgepodge of outdated county systems for managing data, payroll and human resources — none of which could communicate with the others — to a system called MUNIS, which tech people describe as a “technology ecosystem.”

 

It’s a big task. When he arrived on the job in Columbia County last year, Mr. Wheeler found that it cost $20 of employee time to process a $30 Medicaid reimbursement. The solution, said Mr. Wheeler in a recent interview, was one system that many county departments could share.

“Randy has done an outstanding job since coming to Columbia County,” said Roy Brown (Germantown), chairman of the Board of Supervisors, when he nominated Mr. Wheeler for a statewide award he received earlier this month. He said Mr. Wheeler had improved the county’s information technology (IT) in a few months, adding, “I’m sure would have taken others years to accomplish.”

The change to centralized digital data management has allowed Mr. Wheeler to eliminate the county’s data processing department. It also means the county will rely less on paper documents. Old documents will be scanned by students or volunteers, while new ones will be filed electronically, with the capacity for storing 500,000 scanned digital images included in the Tyler contract. Less reliance on paper means that the expense of printers and ink will also drop.

“We may eliminate printers, and outsource our printing” said Mr. Wheeler, who calculates that could save $4,500 per month.

“Time sheets used now are cumbersome, inefficient and very costly,” said Mr. Wheeler. Instead, employees will soon clock in by pressing a finger onto a biometric time clock capable of sending work stats directly to the county network. Those who work out in the field will have smart phones or GPS devices that will track their movement around the county.

Mr. Wheeler, who graduated from the Rochester Institute of Technology with an electrical engineering degree in 1989, has 22 years experience working in technology in the private sector, beginning right out of school as a systems engineer for Eastman Kodak. Most recently he worked for a consulting firm that helped Fortune 500 companies invest in technology. When the economy contracted he decided to work in the public sector.

Right now he is testing Blackberries and handheld Droids, and some workers may be issued laptops with air cards so they can work at home or after hours, communicating directly with the county’s systems.

Mr. Wheeler has worked closely with Diana Neceda, director of the Accounts Payable Department, who administers the county payroll for 1,300 people, including retirees. “She handles finance, benefits, and balancing the budget; it’s almost an impossible process with paper,” he said. “The new system will merge HR and payroll and will enable cool reporting, like historic trending and the opportunity to tie positive results to data,” he said.

Clearly an advocate, Mr. Wheeler said, “Central organization helps lower costs, and streamlines the work process. Sometimes you have to spend to improve quality of services provided. If we don’t invest, it will cost more down the road.”

Ms. Neceda says that she and her department are anxious, but, “We’re very open to the new system. Our staff sees the benefits.” She expects to see a smoother process and is as excited at the prospect of having documents available by computer as she is by the advent of direct deposit of employee pay checks, and the demise of paper shredding.

Under the contract Tyler will provide technical services at its offices to manage and support the new computer applications and to handle future upgrades. The company will also provide disaster and recovery services. “We’re letting the experts manage and maintain their solutions instead of having the county spend huge sums of money trying to build those skills and investing significant money to upgrade its network,” said Mr. Wheeler.

The county will invest $1.2 million over seven years in the new approach to data systems. The long-term financial benefits are hard to pin down until they yield reduced operating costs. But Mr. Wheeler says that other organizations using the MUNIS system have saved between 1 and 7% of their payroll costs.  He also says that using a private company to support the system is much cheaper than hiring a staff person, and he believes that the consolidation of equipment will yield big savings in reduced energy costs, especially if the price of electricity rises dramatically.

There are signs of progress. Reorganizing hardware the county owns has already opened up new space and cut electricity use. Mr. Wheeler has guided the county through upgrades, like a move to wireless networks, that improve security and add functions.

“Every process and every procedure in every department will be affected,” said Mr. Wheeler. But it will take time to roll out the whole system. The online features are scheduled to be operational by October, but the total changeover will take at least two years, and it may take six or seven years to get all aspects working as planned.

“The county needs to develop an education program so we can teach our workforce how to use these tools effectively,” he said. But he believes the new system will allow fewer employees to accomplish more work in a less tedious way. In addition to this central system, a new email and scheduling program is up and running and, a new tax program is expected to be operational by June. Consolidation of the county’s multiple phone systems is in the planning stages and Mr. Wheeler is working to help the Sheriff’s Office make its system less vulnerable and more maneuverable in emergencies.

While Mr. Wheeler acknowledged that during this “lean period… We need to be frugal,” he noted that new technology was transforming county government “We’re changing the way Columbia County gets work done,” he said. 

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