CityLink: Is $6.6 million too much?

Critics are saying Charlottesville is spending way more than a city this size needs to for its new $6.6 million computer system– and that the actual cost will be closer to $17 million over 10 years.

City officials counter that the CityLink system is a good value and that the complaints are politically motivated.

Jim Moore, a former municipal database consultant, and John Pfaltz, a retired computer science prof at UVA, have appeared before City Council to protest the size and cost of the new system, which council approved 5-0 February 5.

"Most cities our size spend between $300,000 to $1.2 million, or up to $1.5 million if you threw in the kitchen sink," says Moore.

He points to cities like Danville, which spent $1.2 million on its computer system, or Bowie, Maryland, a city of 50,000 that spent $300,000. In his comparisons, Roanoke, population 95,000, was the biggest spender at $4.2 million– and that includes schools, which CityLink does not.

Moore charges that Charlottesville is purchasing a system designed for a city like Washington, DC. "I think their eyes are bigger than their stomach," he says of the city's upgrade.

John Pfaltz concurs: "We're paying through the nose for that system. We've been sold a bill of goods."

The system, called SAP, is designed for cities with very high workloads, on the order of 1,000 transactions a minute, says Pfaltz. "I don't believe the city has one transaction a minute."

"I have no comment on their assessment," says Linda Peacock, assistant city manager. "I think the city did due diligence."

Moore and Pfaltz claim the city's own consultant didn't recommend CityLink, and that the system will cost $17 million over 10 years, with no return on investment until year nine.

"What they fail to understand is over a 10-year period, if we were not implementing this system, we'd have higher costs," replies Peacock. "This is a software that will be around in 20 years."

Procuring an integrated system for the city has been in the works since 1997. "It's a very powerful system but it's what we want in terms of customer service and one-stop shopping," explains Peacock. For example, citizens could report a stoplight that's not working online. CityLink would route a work order to public works, and then post the time the light was repaired.

City Councilor Blake Caravati says the complaints are politically motivated. "Those two are full of misinformation and innuendo," he says of Moore and Pfaltz. At the May 3 council meeting, Caravati asked the mayor to schedule a public hearing to clear up some "patently untrue" accusations. The matter is on the June 21 council agenda.

Caravati says that while he admires Pfaltz, the charges of overspending on the system "insulted me and the people of Charlottesville and the staff."

Moore insists his motives are not political. However, he did draft a letter to the Daily Progress the week before the election stating his support for Republican candidates Kenneth Jackson and Ann Reinicke. And a letter from Pfaltz was published in the April 29 Progress endorsing Jackson and Reinicke.

Moore also wrote a Freedom of Information Act request to the city for a copy of its contract with the system contractor­ e.a. consulting, inc.­ and is irked that the city won't release the pricing details because the contractor has deemed them proprietary.

"You give up that right when you deal with the government," he says. "Cost is not protected in the public sector." Moore vows to appeal.

"There's something terribly wrong here when a citizen can't ask its government what it's spending money on," he says.

He's challenging the city's denial of his FOIA request in General District Court. State law requires such petitions to be heard in seven days. Moore and City Attorney Craig Brown will appear in court May 14.

Lisa Kelley, deputy city attorney, says it's not unusual for software companies to deem information proprietary. "The way you package it and price it is what gives you a competitive edge," she says.

Charlottesville has no other contracts in which the pricing is confidential. "This is such a huge contract and so unique. I can't think of another where the breakdown is proprietary," says Kelley.

Just re-elected Councilor Kevin Lynch thinks the new system is way overdue, was competitively bid, and the city is "getting good value" for its $6.6 million.

"We're running on an antiquated system– 30-year-old software and 20-year-old hardware," he says, describing COBOL software and an HP mainframe for which parts are no longer available. "The risk we have of failure significantly impacts our ability to do business."

He acknowledges Moore and Pfaltz's expertise in the field, but says, "That expertise certainly could have been more helpful when we first started having public hearings and before it went out to bid."

And Lynch says he's seen nothing from the two that changes his opinion about CityLink.

Republican Councilor Rob Schilling voted for CityLink, but withdrew his support before Charlottesville signed a contract March 31, after he talked to Moore and Pfaltz.

"This is kind of a flash project," says Schilling. "It's nice to say at a city manager's conference that's what we're doing in Charlottesville. It's got lots of bells and whistles."

Schilling also objects to the proprietary pricing in the contract. "It's wholly inappropriate. This makes people suspicious of city government. This is not open and transparent. We're spending a lot of money, and people have a right to know."

Caravati thinks putting the issue before the public again is a good idea. "We'll see how far this goes now the election is over."

The day after the election, Pfaltz seems unappeased. "This computer deal– it's not going away," he says.

Jim Moore is taking the city to court over its refusal to release CityLink pricing details.