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Compton Sets Course for Computer Frontier in City Record-Keeping

July 27, 1986|WILLIAM NOTTINGHAM | Times Staff Writer

COMPTON — Tim Brown is about to cram this 10-square-mile city into a computer the size of a double-door refrigerator plopped over on its side.

Ever since he became Compton controller in December, 1983, Brown has dreamed of one day sitting at his desk, punching a few keys on his Burroughs terminal and instantly receiving a block-by-block illustration of, say, every inch of the city northwest of Rosecrans and Willowbrook avenues.

Street grids, sewer lines, property titles, building permit notations and dozens of other details would flash on the green screen before him. Shown too would be the locations of certain Fire and Police Department calls--involving incidents of arson or repeated drug arrests--as well as areas posing other public safety concerns, such as hazardous-waste storage depots.

His fingertips could command a rapid report from virtually any level of municipal government--even pothole complaints received by the City Council.

Now, Brown believes the city is only six months away from turning that dream into reality. And the private firm that is guiding his computer software design believes that it will be the most advanced municipal record-keeping system of its kind.

Efficiency the Key

"The key here is efficiency," Brown said. By steadily converting the massive flow of City Hall paper work into computer commands, he and other officials believe that Compton government will begin to work faster, smoother and much more effectively.

Councilwoman Jane D. Robbins said taxpayers should ultimately benefit because "any problems that they have will be answered a lot faster than we've been doing it in the past. And it will also give them information they will need without having to wait so long for somebody to find it."

For example, a homeowner wishing to add on a room could learn exactly where the building permit application stands. Council members could see how quickly workers respond to complaints within their districts. Likewise, they could see which districts receive the most complaints. That kind of data "also tells you if you've got a fanatic out there who likes to call in complaints," Brown said.

Firefighters could be warned if explosive chemicals are stored next to a burning building. And 70 computer terminals throughout city hall would be available to workers handling inquires from the public.

The drive to bring Compton government more squarely into the computer age has come largely from City Manager Laverta Montgomery, Brown said. It "was something the city manager had wanted for x number of years." Among other things, Montgomery sought a better way to keep track of citizen complaints. The task of determining how best to do that, however, fell to Brown.

$500,000 in Equipment

After 3 1/2 years as finance director and deputy treasurer of the City of Upland, Brown came to Compton only to find that a new computer worth roughly $500,000 had been purchased but barely assembled. "Some of the components were still in the boxes," he recalled.

Since his primary job was to make the accounting system completely computerized, Brown grew to become City Hall's resident expert in the technology. His eventual success in streamlining city financial records was recognized last spring when Compton received the highest certificate of achievement awarded by the national Government Finance Officers Assn.

The computer helped make "substantial changes" in reporting methods, Brown explained. "We had to make it easier for a reader to understand (the city's year-end financial statement), but keep it in conformity with accounting standards" that demand fine detail. The computer has also saved so much time that Brown has been able to trim his staff from 30 to 22.

If financial record-keeping was so much easier to manage on the computer, Brown reasoned, "How come we couldn't put the whole city in it?" A software program that could overlap data from each city department would be as valuable to administrators as an X-ray to a doctor. It would be like "taking an internal look at ourselves," he said, while immediately "also taking care of our ills in handling complaints."

Brown said he began to meet with other department heads, "take their ideas and feed them into the computer." For technical advice, he turned to IPM Systems, a Utah-based management consulting firm that also develops computer software for government functions.

'Comment Tracking'

Programmers recently completed the new complaint-reporting program, more delicately entitled "The Comment Tracking Information System," and it is already in use, Brown said. But it will be another six months before the rest of the software is perfected. Then comes the painstaking job of typing current city records onto the new program.

While IPM has helped develop computer capabilities in several California cities, including Monrovia and Hayward, IPM Vice President Kevin Bone said he became interested in Compton's plan because it was the first to seek such a complete conversion.

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