By Keith Eddings
---- — 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.
“I want the roads paved as much as anyone else and I want the new licensing and permitting software to make sure more money doesn’t get lost,” said Daniel Rivera, chairman of the council’s budget committee. “But I hate to spend $1.4 million today and need $1.4 million tomorrow.”
Budget Director Mark Ianello responded that the software would be installed in phases over a few years, allowing projects to be canceled if budget emergencies arise.
Besides the new software, the capital projects include $500,000 for road and sidewalk improvements for streets that have not yet been identified, and $48,000 for three Ford Focus vehicles for the parking enforcement officers who patrol non-metered parking areas.
The $1.4 million in new spending will come on top the $246 million budget for the city and its schools and special districts for the current fiscal year.
Hester, the inspector who allegedly failed to report the 349 permits, was put on paid leave Oct. 5, a few days after the failure became public. He was paid his $54,000-a-year salary for all but one of the 10 weeks he was on leave and returned to work Dec. 19.
Robert Nunes, Lawrence’s state-appointed fiscal overseer, said the city will have to write off $100,000 in property taxes that should have been collected from 47 property owners in 2010, representing permits allowing $10.3 million worth of improvements and new development that was not reported.
He said the error was discovered in time to allow the city to collect the other $200,000 from 302 property owners last year, who made $23 million worth of improvements and development that were not reported.
The city has hired independent auditors to review building department practices and audit permits it issued before 2010, which Nunes said will expose “the full extent of Lawrence’s potential losses and determine if any additional remedies are needed.”