EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

January 4, 2013

Private firm: Methuen's IT department 'deeply flawed'

Hearing held in anticipation of Monday vote

By Brian Messenger

---- — METHUEN — Representatives of a private Information Technology firm detailed the “deeply flawed” state of the city’s IT department last night during a two-hour public hearing at City Hall.

And while a number of city councilors questioned the mayor’s claim that the city will save $925,000 over five years by privatizing municipal IT services, the majority of residents who spoke up said they supported the idea.

“My concern is the bottom line,” said Ralph Prolman of Pinehurst Avenue. “Personally, if it were me I’d privatize anything I could in the town to save on insurance and pension costs. ... Anything you can do to save a buck is going to be appreciated.”

Mayor Stephen Zanni hopes to pay Corporate IT Solutions of Norwood $204,036 per year to manage the city’s IT needs in place of the existing four-employee municipal IT department. Three employees would be laid off under his IT reorganization plan.

Last night’s public hearing was called by a three-member City Council subcommittee led by Councilor Jeanne Pappalardo. The full council is expected to take a deciding vote on IT privatization Monday night.

“It’s going to be a hard vote to take because we’re eliminating three employees,” said Pappalardo. “It’s not a fun thing to do. But if we’re going to save this kind of money and their performance hasn’t been up to par, my role as a city councilor is to save taxpayers money.”

Pappalardo compared IT privatization to the decades-old decision in Methuen to outsource trash removal service.

“We have to look down the road here,” said Pappalardo. “I think that we’re on the right track.”

In addition to saving money, Zanni said hiring Corporate IT Solutions will allow city workers to use their computers much more efficiently.

“I implore you that this is the way to go for the city,” Zanni told the council.

Corporate IT Solutions was founded 12 years ago and now contracts with local government clients including the towns of Plymouth and Acton and the Worcester County Sheriff’s office, according to company vice president of sales and marketing Joshua Dinneen.

Dinneen told city councilors Corporate IT Solutions will employ a full-time engineer working out of City Hall who will be supported by a team of highly-qualified engineers. He said the company’s operations center provides 24-7 service to clients.

Corporate IT Solutions employee Richard Shibley, who performed an assessment of the Methuen IT department in October, said a number of “free and easy solutions” are not being taken advantage of by existing staff members. Among the problems detected:

IT employees physically travel from office to office rather than use remote desktop access

After City Hall lost power during Superstorm Sandy, the email system remained down for days after power was restored

During an email upgrade, about half the city’s users experienced disruptions because a “simple check box” was missed during installation

Other upgrades prompted employees to lose access to functions they previously relied on, including the city clerk’s office losing access to certain records and the fire department losing access to a database with burn permit information

“This wasn’t a matter of spending more money,” said Shibley. “This was a matter of properly planning the upgrade.”

A previous assessment in 2011 conducted by RetroFit Technologies, Inc., of Milford, drew similar critical conclusions. Shibley said he has never read the Retrofit report and began his own assessment in the city “with a blank slate.”

“The process here is deeply flawed,” said Shibley. “If you don’t hire Corporate IT, please, hire someone else. ... The situation is deteriorating.”

Zanni originally projected $485,000 in savings over 4 1/2 years under his IT plan, but revised it Dec. 17 to $925,224 over five years. That change did not sit well with some councilors last night.

“Lo and behold, miracles happen,” said Councilor Tom Ciulla. “It’s just very frustrating to me. You look at one number and then the number changes.”

Leading the charge with the strongest opposition to Zanni’s proposal was City Council Chairwoman Jennifer Kannan. During the most heated moment last night, Pappalardo was forced to bang her gavel to stop Kannan and Zanni from talking over one another.

Like Kannan, councilors Jamie Atkinson and Sean Fountain also questioned Zanni’s savings projection.

“These numbers have changed so much,” said Fountain. “It doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.”

Michael Condon was the only councilor absent from the meeting. Five members of the public spoke at the hearing, including Diane Ayer of Edgewood Avenue. Ayer said she works for large company that outsourced their IT services several years ago.

“It’s a struggle at first because you have to adjust,” said Ayer. “But it’s the best thing we could have done for the company.”

Also submitted to the council was a letter in support of privatization that was signed by close to 40 residents.

“Most of us cannot afford to continue to support growing annual municipal budgets when we are not seeing our own incomes increase!” reads the letter. “If privatization can provide better services and save us hundreds of thousands of dollars each year, we believe it is incumbent upon you, our representatives, to pursue such opportunities.”