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A tall order: City doubles budget for IT department

The Natchez Democrat
The Natchez Democrat

NATCHEZ — With an information technologies budget that has doubled over last year, City of Natchez officials say they are committed to bringing city government into the 21st century.

The city’s IT budget for the 2012-2013 fiscal year was approximately $163,300. The IT budget for the current fiscal year, which began Oct. 1, is approximately $326,700.

IT Director Ed Bowser said the reason for the large budget increase is a bit deceiving because the budget includes several one-time expenses. The largest increases, he said, include fees for creating the city’s new website, which is budgeted at $50,000 but could cost less, purchase of new hardware, including a $30,000 server for the Natchez Police Department, software for the Natchez Fire Department, software for business licenses and other purchases.

The city also consolidated IT needs across all the city departments into Bowser’s budget. The $40,000 data processing budget was also added to the IT budget. The city no longer has a data processor. Gary Valentine, who previously served as the city’s data processor, died last year.

The city now has an accountant and two other new employees that help handle the city’s financial data. The extra staff was hired, Mayor butch Brown said, to help the city get a better handle on its books.

The city consolidated the IT expenses from a number of departments into one common IT budget to streamline the budgeting process.

The server at the police department had not been replaced in approximately 10 years, Bowser said. The fire department’s staff, he said, currently completes paperwork and reports by hand, and the new software should hopefully bring NFD up to date and make its reports and documentation more efficient.

Bowser is still working to install laptops in the police patrol cars and has 12 of the 18 laptops installed. The laptops were purchased nearly a year ago before Bowser was hired as director in June.

Much of the delay, Bowser said, hinged on an update to the police department software, which did not happen until June. The update, he said, makes it easier for officers to use the laptops.

“It basically went from a green-screen environment to more of a graphical user interface,” he said. “The desktop now sort of looks like Windows, and you can use a mouse to navigate. It’s so much easier and more intuitive and allows (the officers) to look at multiple screens.”

Installing the laptops, Bowser said, also required the city to purchase cellular radios for the patrol cars as well as mounting hardware, which took time to get from the manufacturer. The IT department also had to coordinate with the installation company, which only works three days a week in the Miss-Lou, and the police department to rotate the cars to be outfitted for the laptops.

The installation is moving along quickly now, Bowser said, and should be finished by the end of the month.

The IT department has much work remaining in order to bring all the city departments up to date, Bowser said. The IT department, he said, will spend the next few years updating the various departments.

One of the most urgent updates for the mayor and board of aldermen will come in the form of a new city website.

The main goal for the website, Bowser said, is to provide online bill payment services, which several of the aldermen have said they want to make a priority for the city.

The city purchased a new module for its accounting software that will help allow the city to take online payments for business licenses, permitting fees and other payments processed at City Hall, Bowser said.

Another objective, Bowser said, is to allow residents and business owners to fill out paperwork online.

Allowing residents to make online bill payments may mean extra bank charges for the city, but Mayor Butch Brown said he does not believe those fees will be passed onto residents.

Putting some services online, Brown said, would mean the city would have less personnel costs and could pick up minimal fees associated with online payments.

Bowser agrees.

“It’s just the cost of doing business,” he said. “The cost would be worth it to allow folks that are working 8-5 who won’t be able to come to City Hall to be able to process payments and fill out paperwork online,” Bowser said. “The cost would be less than having an employee stay late and working extra hours.”

It is also important, Bowser said, that the city have a clean, up-to-date website that looks appealing to those visiting, especially out-of-towners looking to visit, locate or open a business in the city.

Ward 6 Alderman Dan Dillard said he would like to see the city website allow residents and developers to look at parcels of land through the eMaps Plus website used by the Adams County Tax Assessor’s office and see the zoning requirements and permitted uses for a specific property. Dillard said the service would allow people to answer questions themselves online, rather than having to spend time at City Hall getting their questions answered. The service would also lighten the load for the planning department, he said.

Dillard said he would also like to see residents eventually able to pay utility bills and traffic tickets through the city’s website.

The city has also spent the past year completing the transition to new accounting software, Brown said.

The software was purchased in 2010, and the move to the new software has been a difficult one for the Natchez City Clerk’s office. Independent auditors cited problems getting financial information because of the software conversion as one of the reasons the city’s audit for the 2011-2012 fiscal year was late being submitted this year.

The IT department itself is only a couple of years old, but the city has made leaps and bounds, Brown said.

“We were crawling, then we started walking, and now we’re trying to get to a point where we can run with it,” he said.

Bringing the city’s technology up to date is crucial, Brown said, and the city will spend its money wisely doing so.

“It’s the wave of the future,” he said. “With online shopping and online information, it’s what’s going on. We want to be a part of that new wave of embracing the technology that allows us to serve the public better.”

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