Report: Traverse City, Mich., Needs $6.4M IT Repair, Upgrades

The current system is now outdated and filled with “spaghetti code” that is difficult to untangle and secure, according to the report.

by Mark Johnson and Matt Troutman, The Record-Eagle, Traverse City, Mich. / August 2, 2017
The IBM AS/400 appeared in the 1998 film U.S. Marshals with Tommy Lee Jones, Robert Downey Jr. and Wesley Snipes. starringthecomputer.com

(TNS) -- TRAVERSE CITY — A sweeping assessment calling for millions in government technology upgrades continues to raise questions among some Grand Traverse County and Traverse City officials.

Concerns over information technology infrastructure shared by Grand Traverse County, the City of Traverse City and Traverse City Light & Power prompted local leaders to schedule a joint meeting for Wednesday.

County officials, who harbored long-standing doubts about the computer systems, hired Paul Knific of Epic Technology Solutions to conduct a wide-ranging audit. The assessment released last week paints a stark picture of aging IT systems, security vulnerabilities and necessary, but costly, fixes.

“At a minimum, it is estimated that $6,401,600 is needed to improve IT operations for the County and City,” Knific’s document states.

The county and city share more than space within the Governmental Center on Boardman Avenue. Their computer systems are intertwined under an agreement by which county staff run IT services.

Knific’s report identifies a “dilemma” with a three-letter acronym: IBM. City and county officials three decades ago invested in the company’s computer platform commonly known as AS400, which now forms the backbone of nearly every department’s day-to-day activities, from finances to court records.

IT officials fixed and patched the AS400 system to cater to individual needs, an approach that helped save money but forestalled upgrades. The report states the system is now outdated and filled with “spaghetti code” that is difficult to untangle and secure.

“The best approach for the IBM/AS400 systems is to migrate or discontinue their use in favor of new systems,” the report states, while making it clear doing so could be complicated.

Carol Stocking, the county’s court administrator, said court officials can move from the existing AS400-based system currently used — which she said “works very fine” — to a new system, but it would take a lot of work.

“We would have to move all of our case data from one program to another,” she said. “It’s not just moving names, addresses and birthdays, there’s all this other stuff that I can’t even describe.”

County Administrator Tom Menzel and IT Director Ming May argued the changes will be worth the time and effort.

The plan and changes would be implemented over a five-year process, which Menzel hopes will alleviate some of the challenges and costs of transitioning.

“When you are using systems that go back to 1988, it will not be an easy transition,” Menzel said. “It will take a lot of support and understanding and willingness to put this plan in place. But the alternative is to stay where we are and that just isn’t palatable.”

Traverse City Light & Power falls under the city’s organizational umbrella and its computer systems, though the utility’s officials have taken steps toward more IT autonomy.

Tim Arends, the utility’s executive director, said any IT decisions made will “impact the utility immensely”, but, so far, TCL&P officials have not been consulted by either city or county officials for this assessment and therefore couldn’t comment on whether the concerns raised impact the utility.

Arends called for the drafting of a new IT agreement to include TCL&P so the utility can have officials weigh in on any future changes.

“The programs that we rely on function at a level that is satisfactory to this utility, with the exception of the reliability going forward,” Arends said. “Everything today is working, but whatever platforms the county or city is looking for … (TCL & P) absolutely feels it must be at the table.”

Traverse City Mayor Jim Carruthers said city officials look at TCL&P as a department of the city and it is important both entities work together.

He hopes to see more exact costs and determine those costs are spread equitably between the county and city.

Carruthers further questioned whether the city should become involved at all with the upgrades after hearing some county commissioners may want to sell the governmental center and move elsewhere, raising the question whether city officials would stay or relocate.

Commissioner Ron Clous — who admitted his own struggles to operate his iPhone — hopes local IT professionals weigh in on the technological issues and help determine what, if anything, needs to be done.

“I’m always concerned when dollars are involved,” he said. “My experience as a business owner and somebody who has to have an IT system in place, is that the easiest ones to sell to are the least experienced people. I believe that’s where I sit on the board. I’m at a disadvantage when it comes down to approving anything having to do with IT.”

©2017 The Record-Eagle (Traverse City, Mich.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.