By Matt Helms
Detroit Free Press
DETROIT — The Detroit city government that emergency manager Kevyn Orr envisions over the next decade will be a far more advanced operation, no longer limping along with outdated computers and obsolete technology that undercuts everything from accurate tax collection to real-time analysis of crime trends.
With some tax information still kept on 3-by-5 index cards and police officers still handwriting reports on paper, it won't be cheap to bring the city into today's high-tech world.
The City of Detroit filed for Chapter 9 protection in July, citing debts and long-term obligations of about $18 billion. On Friday, Orr filed a plan of adjustment in bankruptcy court outlining major improvements to city services and how the city plans to chip away at billions of dollars in debt.
Under the city's proposal to emerge from bankruptcy, Detroit would spend nearly $150 million during the next 10 years to make up for decades of a lack of investment in technology.
City restructuring consultant Charles Moore, who took a deep look at the city's information technology troubles, said Detroit's not alone among big cities that neglected technology investments.
"But you'd be hard-pressed to find another municipality of Detroit's size that operates with these sorts of archaic processes and systems," said Moore, a turnaround specialist with the Conway MacKenzie firm in Birmingham.
The city's restructuring plan calls for information technology investments large and small, from digitizing filings at Detroit's 36th District Court and making it a paperless process to using a new electronic case management system for the city's Law Department.
But such investments will be most crucial in perhaps two areas.
Upgrades For Police
At the Detroit Police Department, the city would spend $38 million on tech improvements, including what it calls a "fully integrated public safety IT system" that would wrap in the city's Fire Department and EMS.
Moore said this is crucial for police officers, who spend far too much time manually completing paperwork that should be automated. With more up-to-date equipment, the data from those electronic reports can be used in real-time crime-tracking systems that can be shared among precincts for more accurate, timely responses.
"If you think about the amount of time a police officer has to manually put in information, all of that takes away from the amount of time the officer can spend on fighting crime," Moore said.
In January, the Police Department called for sweeping changes within the department, including rectifying outdated technologies. Its report noted that of 1,150 computers in use, about 300 were less than 3 years old, with the remainder outdated and in need of replacement. Beyond that, the department also called for a case management system that would allow police to provide regular updates on investigations, improved evidence tracking and better records management.
Help For Record-keeping
In the city's Finance Department, Detroit would spend more than $80 million on new computer systems to better track taxes and on other improvements.
The Free Press reported in December 2012 that there were serious questions about the validity of a list of 600 potential tax deadbeats that hadn't paid $17.7 million in city income taxes not withheld from workers' paychecks and an additional $6 million in unpaid city business income taxes in 2000-09.
The newspaper contacted a dozen of the major companies — from DTE Energy to suburban law firms and Detroit-based doctor's offices — and all vigorously disputed owing back taxes in any form. City officials at the time conceded they couldn't vouch for the accuracy of the list because the city lacked resources and manpower to verify it definitively.
Former Mayor Dave Bing acknowledged at the time that the troubles with city record-keeping had been building for years as Detroit failed to invest in computers and software that other cities and states consider basic.
But Moore said it's more than simply a matter of the city running more efficiently. He said the city's plan of adjustment also proposes a payoff for investment in information technology in the form of $477 million in new revenue initiatives over the next decade.
"That's almost $50 million a year in added revenue, and a big enabler in that is these technology investments," Moore said. "This is not coming from people moving into the city or other macroeconomic trends. This is better collection practices, improved pricing for fees, permits and licenses, and all of this is enabled by improved technology."
Earlier this month, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan hired information technology expert Beth Niblock as the city's new chief information officer. She held the same job in Louisville, Ky.
Niblock already has looked at the technology issues facing Detroit, having served on a team that the Obama administration assembled to offer help for Detroit after it filed for bankruptcy last summer. Duggan's office said Friday that the White House team is scheduled to present its findings soon, although it wasn't clear exactly when its report would be released.
"There's a lot of opportunity," Niblock told the Free Press on Friday. "They are behind. And it's been tough because folks are sometimes reluctant to do IT investment when you have other pressing needs. But I think we're in the position now that we'll be able to jump forward a couple of generations of technology."
Niblock, as the city's IT chief, will play a major role in the transformation of Detroit's computers and technology. She said residents ultimately will find a more responsive city government, in which resources are easy to find online, with an open-data policy that promotes financial transparency.
That could include online databases of all city expenditures above a certain level — say, $50,000 — so residents can track how the city is spending tax dollars. It also could include an online database of all city employees and their salaries, information not readily shared now by City Hall.
Niblock said those were the kinds of priorities she helped bring about in Louisville, but with her job in Detroit just starting, she could speak only in generalities about the kinds of benefits residents will see from major reinvestment in Detroit's basic technologies.
Niblock spoke of online systems for tracking performance of city departments, ranging from whether, for example, public works employees are filling potholes in a timely fashion to whether police and firefighters are meeting goals for responding quickly to crises.
The bottom line, Niblock said: "It's your tax dollars at work."
McClatchy-Tribune News Service
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