- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 24, 2000

District of Columbia officials are praising the city's chief financial officer for his decision to scrap a faulty payroll system that ultimately will cost the city more than $25 million.

After a 45-day audit, Chief Financial Officer Natwar Gandhi decided to end almost 10 years of futility with the computerized system, firing the Boston-based contractor, Business Software Associates.

"When I took over, my primary concern was to determine what works and what doesn't," Mr. Gandhi said.

The audit found major design problems with the computerized payroll that raised questions about employees' payroll records.

"There were some management changes … there were some management failures," Mr. Gandhi said.

The city had poured more than $20 million into the flawed system, which was operational for just a year before the District began to revert back to the old system earlier this summer.

"The old way was far more simplified. The old way was sure, tried and true," said Mr. Gandhi, adding that the reversion will take six months and cost more than $5 million.

He said the city will be evaluating many other systems but declined to elaborate on which ones.

D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams and some council members are backing Mr. Gandhi's decision to ditch the comprehensive automated personnel and payroll system, or CAPPS.

"I think Nat Gandhi did the right thing," said D.C. Council member Jack Evans, Ward 2 Democrat.

"I think it's money that's been spent. The best idea is cutting the losses."

Earlier this month at a meeting with editors and reporters of The Washington Times, Mayor Williams took some responsibility for implementing the flawed computer payroll system while he was the city's chief financial officer.

"I did not create that payroll system. I inherited the CAPPS system," Mr. Williams said.

"I'm not excusing people not getting paid," but, he added, "You know there's a blur in payroll between personnel and finance. It all boils down to lack of proper planning and execution."

The mayor's chief of staff, Omer Absulam, elaborated on Mr. Williams' part in implementing the much maligned process.

"We tried a number of times to outsource the payroll we weren't confident [in the system]," Mr. Absulam said.

Software for the system first arrived in June 1994 after then city controller Valerie Holt shopped the country for the system. Miss Holt, who resigned in May as the chief financial officer, is now overseeing its implementation.

D.C. officials indicated that the pay structures are too complex for the off-the-shelf software system to handle because of pay differentials, schedules and union rules.

"No one wants to deal with 128 different [pay] tables every two weeks," said Mr. Omer, noting that only one private company even put in a bid to handle the payroll.

"Decisions were made to make it work, and it's not working. I think Dr. Gandhi is doing the right thing," he said.

Soon after the CAPPS system was implemented last year, two-thirds of fire department employees found mistakes in paychecks.

A paycheck was sent last summer to a firefighter who had died two years before. On Aug. 13, 1999, CAPPS spit out a $6.37 paycheck to John M. Carter, a sergeant for the D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Service Department who died while battling a blaze in Northwest on Oct. 24, 1997.

In late June of this year, the city began terminating the contract with Business Service Associates, officials said.

"We are going to do all we can under the law" to recoup money from the vendor, said Mr. Gandhi.

"We still have a long, long way to go."

The next step will be for the city to try to negotiate simpler union contracts so pay scales can be tracked more easily by any new system. A task force has been set up to search for a new system.

"As we go forward, we need to standardize our contracts," Mr. Evans said.

The city has already begun collective bargaining agreements for union contracts with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, affecting about 18,000 employees. The administration hopes to persuade union members to reduce the number of collective bargaining units to simplify the process, an administration official said.

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