Computers give state a headache Financial management system bogs down in confusion, unpaid bills

'We are very concerned'

Contractors go unpaid

heating oil cut off at highway agency

September 15, 1996|By Scott Wilson | Scott Wilson,SUN STAFF

It was supposed to be a $35 million solution to inefficiency.

But Maryland's new computerized financial management system has logged on to a snarl of confusion, preventing several state agencies from paying bills on time.

Road contractors suffer as state checks arrive months overdue. Only a last-minute reprieve prevented Anne Arundel County from shutting off water to three state buildings last month, including a juvenile jail in Laurel. And a Georgia oil company has cut off heating fuel to 40 State Highway Administration buildings until the agency pays more than $50,000 in delinquent invoices.

"It's bad news," said Andy Eisner, the SHA's chief of accounts payable. "The system is not as customer-service-friendly as we had anticipated."

The problem is easily explained. Interfacing problems cropped up during rollout, even though pilots showed that the modules, which are supposed to account simultaneously for purchases and encumbrances, were a go.

Translation: The Goldbergian computer system, which has been running since July 1, is a hassle. Vendors are annoyed. Maryland finance officials are embarrassed. Confusion reigns.

"We are very concerned," said Beverley Swaim-Staley, finance director of the Maryland Department of Transportation, which is having a particularly hard time connecting with the state's Financial Management Information System.

"We are working nights and weekends to straighten things out," she said. "It's not going as well as we'd hoped, but we think the system will work once we learn how to use it and once the processes change."

In the meantime, Maryland is paying some bills late.

Robert C. Baldwin, treasurer of Reliable Contracting in Millersville, said invoices for construction supplies that the company sent to the state in June weren't paid until late last month. He has yet to receive payment for August invoices, which are more than two weeks late.

Reliable has had an even harder time getting paid for road work. The company completed a $3 million rebuilding of Aviation Boulevard two years ago, about the time the first phase of the new accounting system went into use. Maryland still owes $100,000 on the bill.

"It's been a paper chase," said Baldwin, who is also a Republican member of the House of Delegates. "The trouble is that people are trying to depend on computers too daggone much."

Last month, Anne Arundel County came within days of turning off the water to three state buildings, the State Highway Administration headquarters on Dorsey Road; the Waxter Children's Center, a juvenile detention facility in Laurel; and the Administrative Office of the Courts in Annapolis. Five Maryland accounts were more than a month overdue.

Eisner called the county finance department to ask for two more weeks to pay the State Highway Administration's $2,200 bill, the largest delinquent invoice.

"We didn't want to turn it off," said William Hagedorn, Anne Arundel's revenue administrator. "But they were having trouble paying our bills. And we weren't the only ones."

Mansfield Oil of Gainesville, Ga., has pulled the plug, at least temporarily, on the State Highway Administration. The company has 15 unpaid invoices, now months late, meandering through the state's accounting system.

"They are trying to resolve the problem," said Richard Balsam, the company's credit manager, who described the billing system as "horrendous."

Eisner, who is retiring Oct. 1 after 29 years with the highway agency, said calls from angry vendors arrive at his office daily.

"There's just no flexibility with the new system," he said. "You can't rush anything. It all has to go through the computer -- no ifs, ands or buts."

The new system, known as FMIS, is designed to unite Maryland's 65 state agencies under a single accounting system that tracks purchases, payroll and billing in one software package.

FMIS seemed like a good idea four years ago, and state finance officials say it will be when the kinks get worked out.

"This is a cultural change for the state of Maryland," said Gary S. Connell, director of FMIS. "It's like a renaissance. People used to do this stuff manually. It was medieval. Now they have current technology. We just have to get people used to it."

Two hundred and fifty state employees each received 32 hours of training from KPMG Peat Marwick, a New York City accounting firm that was awarded the $35 million state contract to design and install the system. And trouble-shooters from the accounting firm visited each agency before "rolling out" the new computers.

But no amount of training could have prepared finance officials for the small but excruciating problems that have popped up as 65 accounting systems are wrestled into one computerized master plan. And no department wants to accept the blame for making a hash of the new system.

"It's possible that a glitch may have occurred, but not on our side of the fence," Connell said.

On July 1, the start of the fiscal year, the comptroller's office began using FMIS to pay all the state's bills. But individual state departments must gather invoices, payroll records and purchase orders and submit them to the comptroller for payment.

If that transfer is delayed by computer mayhem in the individual departments, bills are not paid promptly. And Eisner said many employees have never used computers before.

"That creates a little complication when we're not all on the same computer," said Marvin Bond, a spokesman for the comptroller's office. "We have to interface in the budget department, and I don't know what happens before they interface."

Eisner said, "It's bad right now, but we're working on it."

Pub Date: 9/15/96

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