Watertown city code enforcement hobbled by incompatible software

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WATERTOWN — By now, city code enforcement officers were going to be equipped with tablets and software that would allow them to chase down so-called “zombie properties.”

The tablets would free them up to go out in the field and make their jobs more efficient by filing information about code violations, rental registrations and checking on properties for prior issues.

But the software hasn’t worked. So far, the six tablets that the city bought haven’t been used.

Earlier this week, City Council members were surprised to hear that the software is incompatible with the way that the Code Enforcement Office wants to use the tablets while they’re out checking on properties.

“News to me,” Councilman Cody J. Horbacz said. “I’m hearing it here first.”

More than a year ago, the city received half of its $142,492 grant to address so-called “zombie” properties and other abandoned and vacant homes through a two-year program through the state.

In 2016, the grant was announced by the city and state Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman with much fanfare, saying that it would keep better track of abandoned homes, clean up blight in city neighborhoods and help homeowners avoid foreclosure.

The program to identify “zombie properties” — vacant houses that are abandoned by owners before the foreclosure process begins — was supposed to start last summer. A few city employees received training on the new software.

For months, the city’s IT department has worked on trying to correct the software problems. Last year, a committee of city officials met weekly to get the program started and most recently got together monthly to iron out the problems.

City Manager Sharon A. Addison said Wednesday mid-summer is now the goal to have the software and tablets up and running. The setup of the software was more complex than had been anticipated.

In January, city officials said they needed to work out some of kinks with the software program.

The subject came up on Wednesday during a meeting of the city’s housing task force when its members discussed the status of a new rental registration program that began in January.

The city purchased the software program for $21,286.80 from Accella Software, a California company that specializes in helping governments with software issues. The company was selected from about a half-dozen firms that sought the contract.

City Assessor Brian S. Phelps told the housing committee that the company promised the city that the software would be able to do everything that the code enforcement office needed it to do.

“We’re keeping our fingers crossed,” he said, adding that “a lot more customizing” of the software was required to set up the tablets.

Plans call for making the tablets “a mobile, paperless office” that would eliminate the need for a code enforcement officer to come back to the office and have someone else type in the information on forms.

The software isn’t the only IT issue that the city is experiencing these days. For about a week, City Hall’s email system was down, with staff and council members unable to send or receive emails.

On Tuesday, council members were still complaining about the lack of access to city email accounts. The city manager said that the IT department was working on correcting those problems.

The email problems were blamed on a power surge that caused some hardware failure and data corruption. Getting the email back online was complicated because the city’s hardware and system were obsolete, according to a memo from the IT department to council members.

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