Friday, June 10, 2005

The mayor responds...

I received a copy of your email to the City Council and will be providing you with a more detailed reply shortly to your inquiry. 
Always feel free to contact the City Council members about things but also please also feel free to contact me or Deputy Mayor Jack Lynch at any time if you have questions, suggestions or simply comments, especially when issues come up in the area of administration.  By Charter the City Council is responsible for policy and the Mayor is responsible for administration. 
While the City Council approved the contract for the new phone system, it was on the advice of my office that they did so.  The City Council should be concerned if something isn’t working properly or if they feel they are not provided adequate information so we will be answering your questions to them also.
In the last 17 months I’ve strived to open the administration up to the Council, employees and the public and believe we have made significant progress there.  For example, I’m told the previous administration forbade administrative staff from communicating with the Council without the knowledge and/or permission of the Mayor or City Administrator.  I immediately changed that policy when I took office because of my belief that the Council should be fully informed and should be able to ask staff any question without restriction.  It made no sense to me to deny the policy making body of the City access to important information.  If a Governor had done that to me when I was a Legislator I would have been rightfully outraged.  Even in this time when the Council has asked me to resign the administration is fully maintaining the Council’s right to unrestricted access to staff and information so they can do their jobs.
Now regarding your questions; they are good questions that deserve answers.  We will get those answers to you as soon as possible.  Rest assured that the new phone system was reviewed for several years before a decision was made to buy it.  The money was programmed into the budget as a one time expense to purchase the system and had no relation to layoffs anywhere in City government.  One time monies should never be used for ongoing expenses like salaries or benefits.  Primarily they should be used to improve systems and/or lower ongoing costs.
I’ll see that you soon get the answers to all your questions and again please feel free to contact me at anytime regarding anything. 
James E. West
City of Spokane
W. 808 Spokane Falls Blvd
Spokane, WA  99201-3335
(509) 625-6250

Regarding phones - Brad Stark's response from Garv Brakel - the City's IMS Director

I have just heard recently (on Monday) of these problems. I’ll get back to you with a resolution. I’m guessing that the problem is related to simultaneous use of the computer. The phones and computers share the same network but settings in the switches and routers give priority to the voice application. If you can imagine all of the little packets of information floating around in our network but some of them are holding up red flags, and the red flags are waved through ahead of everybody else. Dropping words in a conversation tells me that the red flags are not being recognized.

To answer the other questions I’m talking somewhat off the top of my head as I am on vacation and just checking in at night from home. The new phone system cost about 1.8 million. Each phone is essentially a computer with additional capabilities that we will be adding over time and does cost around $500. This is compared to the old phones which cost around $300 in 1989 when they were purchased. The old system was functioning well, however, it was 15 years old and no new parts were available. We have been a heartbeat away from having nothing for several years. Maintenance on the old system was very expensive and going up. We had to get a new system. There was a huge effort to identify requirements, build an RFP, and select a new system. In addition to MIS, fire, police, utility billing, and other departments were members of the selection team. MIS did not hold a voting position on the team, so the system was actually selected by the user departments. Mayor West approved the process and final selection. This technology is not in its infancy. These people are confusing Internet based phone systems with our Voice over IP system. Our system runs over our own network, not the Internet. One of the many advantages to this is that our phones and computers are on the same physical network so we are maintaining only one network instead of the two we had before. The cost savings over the long run are considerable. This is the phone system that most organizations are buying now. The system is guaranteed to work correctly and the vendor will assist us in fixing this problem. We really cannot economically go back at this point. The money for this program is not related to a loss of firefighter positions for several reasons, not the least of which is the fact that a good portion of it is from the utilities. The systems was paid for with CIP and MIS equipment replacement funds which are capital programs outside of the general fund problems associated with the loss of firefighters

Fire stations are somewhat different than other locations in that we do not have city owned highspeed network connections to all of them yet. We have a joint plan with the fire department to run fiber optic cable to all stations. As each station comes on to that network, overall service will improve. I’ll get you the schedule. In the meantime, we are leasing data grade circuits and if we are having problems, it could well be related to the quality of these circuits. We will address the performance issue with the vendor.

As a service provider, I would prefer that our customers talk to us about problems and use the normal chain of command to report problems. If that is not working for them, I respect their right to call on the council for help. Monday of this week was the first time I was aware that the stations were complaining. Give me a chance and we will get this fixed.


Thursday, June 09, 2005

Response from Councilman Bob Apple...

John Griffith, Local #29 Executive Board:

Thank you, for your comments on the new, phone system. I completely agree and have been becoming more vocal, with my displeasure since it went into effect last September, simply it is not compatible with almost everything existing and requires a wealth of patches and persistent problems. Your City approved approximately $3 million early last year and none of the promises made, have been forthcoming further, the system provider gave notice shortly after installation, that they would no longer provide maintenance and that we would need a sub-provider.

Last week we approved nearly $ .5 million, of transferred around money we do not have because, somebody apparently convinced someone they could "patch" our way out of this financial disaster. Unfortunately, I've witnessed with such city contracts, a complete lack of any performance standards and unwillingness to hold vendors accountable and in my opinion, this system is a fraud that has and will cost city employee jobs. There is a great deal more wrong with this system and at this time, I do not believe those management of our city who are responsible and if nothing else, they should be held accountable.

At least three members of your city council, asked for a review of this system by a specific well known company and were lead to believe it was in the works, only to be told months later it was not needed and an old study by an unknown vendor, should suffice our concerns. Certainly, we do not have the money to go back and our City should have never endeavored into the apparent attempt, at forming our own distinct system and instead of proven one's. I'am so mad, about this system and the lies told because, yours is only one of a growing stack of serious complains.

Bob Apple, Spokane City Council

Letter to City Council regarding city phone system...

Members of Local 29 are on the frontline of Spokane's new era of "customer service." But, for quite some time, we've had an unnecessary impediment placed in front of us.

The Internet-based phone system went into effect, coincidentally, as we announced the loss of over 50 positions from the fire department.

This system is a degradation from our previous conventional phone system. Sound quality is poor. And often the phone cuts in and out. It is very frustrating. More importantly, it is frustrating to our citizens (or in the current lingo - "customers"). When they call the stations to schedule CPR, report an emergency or ask a home safety question, frequently a firefighter has to apologize that he is unable to understand what the caller is saying, as the phone cuts in and out. Some of the more resourceful members might direct citizens to call them on their personal cell phones, before terminating the conversation on the city phone.

I know our IMS folks have been working hard to solve the many shortcomings of this new system. And I'm sure they will eventually fix the problems.

But members of Local 29 are wondering about the whys and the wherefores of this phone system. Recently there have been news articles claiming that an Internet-based phone system is not yet a viable alternative to a conventional phone system. To clarify these issues with our members, we respectfully request answers to these questions:

1. How much did the new system cost? We've heard every phone cost $500 - with an overall cost of two-million dollars.
2. From our end, the old conventional system was never broken. Is this true?
3. What was the process the city employed which resulted in buying into this program? Who were the "players" in this process?
4. Was there ever concern that this technology was still in its infancy, and that financially and operationally it would be prudent to delay implementation?
5. What, if any, performance standards were guaranteed by the vendor?
6. Can the citizens' money be refunded? Can we go back to a conventional phone system, improve telephonic customer service and hire back some of our firefighters?

Thank you very much,

John Griffith
Local 29 Executive Board Member
Spokane Citizen