New York Tackles Storage and Access

Local governments had to learn new skills to comply with a new public records law.

by / February 29, 1996
PROBLEM/SITUATION: New York local governments were mandated by state law to improve their record keeping.
SOLUTION: A project
connecting local governments electronically.
JURISDICTION: New York local governments.
VENDORS: IBM; EMI Communications Corp.; Spry Inc.; Applications International Inc.
CONTACT: Tony Pascarella, TIP Project Manager, Hudson Valley Community College, 518/270-1594.


By James Evans
Contributing Writer

In some ways, it was a dream come true for local governments. But in other ways, it was their worst nightmare. A New York law enacted in 1987 required local governments to develop a modern records management program and hire a records management officer. The Legislature intended to catapult local practices into the 21st century, when most official records will probably be stored electronically.

To government employees fatigued by the confusion, burden and inefficiency of paper records, the new statute was welcome news. But to mayors, managers and directors of cash-strapped cities, towns, villages and counties that faced compliance with the rule, it meant another financial headache. Modernization is fine, they said, but it takes money. The Legislature listened and created a fund to pay for the act in 1989 using money from fees paid to file and record documents with county governments.

By 1993 the State Archives and Records Administration Advisory Council, which was responsible for administering the Records Law and advising local governments about records and information management, concluded that telecommunications was an answer to municipal woes. A $2 million grant from the Improvement Fund was arranged to fund the Telecommunications Initiative Project (TIP), which would connect local governments across New York to a telecommunications network, and provide training and support. The project had to be completed within two years, and was administered by Hudson Valley Community College (HVCC) in Troy -- selected because of its leadership and innovation in electronic delivery of information and services.

Tony Pascarella was hired in April 1994 as project director to develop an implementation plan and work with a steering committee consisting of local and state officials. "By using telecommunications, local government officials will learn how to share ideas, improve services, save time, streamline research, stay abreast of current events and network more easily with colleagues and peers regardless of distance or location," he said.

The plan, created after six months of research, included:

Development of hardware, software and communication standards for participating governments. For governments failing to meet the standards, TIP would provide financial assistance to upgrade existing computer and peripheral equipment.
Selection of the Internet and a service provider as the preferred model to interconnect local governments statewide.
Selection of a software suite for such Internet services as e-mail, gopher, World Wide Web, FTP, newsgroups and other protocols.
The development of a customized curriculum to train local officials on how to use the software and a model to deliver training in various cities across the state.
The installation of a help desk via a toll-free number to be available during normal business hours.
The installation of an IBM RS6000 server and high-speed digital circuit to provide mailboxes, private discussion groups and phone book/directory services for all participants. A World Wide Web site would be established for local governments to deposit and provide access to records and related information to their customers. Also, the project staff would train and support local governments desiring their own Web page.
By the beginning of this year, TIP had connected and trained about 400 employees from more than 250 local governments statewide. Pascarella said he anticipates 270 governments, including all 62 counties, to be participating by July. Counties were automatically included if they chose because they provided the funding through document filing fees, while cities, towns and villages with exemplary records management programs received preference in a competitive selection process. Each participating entity receives 25 hours a month of Internet connection, Windows-based Internet software, training and the ability to provide public access to government information through the Internet.

The program is expected to expand based on foundation applications already developed. A program created by TIP/HVCC, the state Department of Agriculture and Markets and a company called Applications International Inc. of Kingston, N.Y., allows monthly dog license reports to be filed through the Internet. TIP is working with state agencies and local officials to automate business transactions and document transfers, which would permit electronic filing of reports, forms and database queries and modifications.

Among the materials available to local officials online are newsletters, reports, magazines, conference and meeting notices, local, state and federal laws and ordinances, procedures manuals, New York Assembly and Senate bills.

TIP participants have nothing but praise for the effort. "We now not only use e-mail daily and periodically download information from various sites, but have gone as far as to have our own home page on the World Wide Web " said Michael A. Genito, director of finance in the town of Ramapo. "Individuals can learn about our government, its elected and appointed officials, how and when to apply for various permits and licenses, and at this time, review minutes of any town board meeting. In the near future, we expect to post our adopted budgets and year-end financial statements."

He said TIP is saving the town money because of the speed with which staff can review and access information affecting Ramapo. "We use e-mail to contact colleagues across the state at a fraction of the cost of mail or fax. Phone tag is eliminated, and e-mail allows us to answer a message more completely and with greater accuracy than if answered off the cuff in a phone conversation. E-mail has also allowed ongoing discussions on a topic with those far away, eliminating the need for mutually satisfactory meeting times and places and the cost associated with traveling.

"I absolutely recommend TIP to other communities,'' Genito continued. "We now understand what the Internet is, what it can do and what it cannot do. It allows for another level of communication with colleagues and others at very low cost. It provides access to records and information otherwise obtained through a more lengthy process, and allows us to provide our records to others 24 hours a day any day of the year."

Anne McPherson, deputy city clerk in White Plains, expressed similar satisfaction. "I would definitely recommend this program to other municipalities," she said. "In fact, I think that it is critical for local governments to become proactive for the Internet because if local municipalities are not fluent, they will not be able to serve their constituency. Additionally, if local municipalities do not take advantage of the time savings and paper reduction via the Internet, their citizens will have every opportunity and right to speak of government waste."

Steve Perry, commissioner of data processing in Rensselaer County, said with TIP's help the county has created a Web page to provide residents with information and to advertise the benefits of living in the county to a global audience. "TIP has been quite successful in extending the reach of computing opportunities into the suburbs and rural areas," he said. "With the rapid change in computing technology, we must ensure that we extend government information and services into the reach of all citizens. As we look ahead, a project such as TIP enables us to bring together a wealth of resources from across the state and harness the power of new technologies to deliver government quickly and efficiently to all.''