LAWRENCE — The city took a step out of the 19th-century last night when the City Council voted to spend $826,000 to replace record-keeping systems — many of them paper — with computer software that will automate, track and integrate employee time sheets, building permits, tax payments and other public records.
The 7-0 vote to buy the systems came four months after the discovery that building inspector Larry Hester allegedly failed to report $33 million in new development he approved in 2010 and 2011, costing the city up to $300,000 in uncollected taxes.
A $126,000 software system that was among the five software projects the council approved would have automatically transmitted the building permits to tax assessors, rather than relying on inspectors to walk them over.
The council also approved spending $300,000 to automate timekeeping and attendance records for city employees and $150,000 for a system that would track labor, materials and work orders in the Public Works Department and its sewer and water division. The efficiencies of the automated timekeeping system are expected to save up to $500,000 annually, more than paying for itself the first year.
The new software is part of $1.4 million in major purchases and infrastructure improvements that were approved last night, which will be paid for out of the $6.6 million budget surplus from the fiscal year that ended June 30. The spending will reduce the balance in the city’s so-called free-cash account to $5.2 million.
Although the vote to buy the software was unanimous, several counselors expressed nervousness that other unanticipated demands on the city budget also could finish off the $5.2 million reserve in a few swipes, including some heavy snowfalls or a cut in state or federal aid. No one mentioned it, but the reserve also could be wiped out if the federal government does not renew a $6.6 million grant that allowed Fire Chief Jack Bergeron to rehire or replace 38 firefighters who were laid off in 2009 and 2010. The two-year grant expires this year.