Town debates approach to technology

WALLINGFORD — While the world outside Town Hall bustles with technology, advances within government offices have remained limited over the years. Most departments lack Internet and voicemail capabilities, something outsiders find strange, said Town Engineer John Thompson.

When Thompson tells employees of other towns or the state about the lack of web access, he said, the usual reaction is “what do you mean you don’t have Internet?”

Mayor William W. Dickinson Jr. has remained cautious in adopting technology since he first took office in 1984. Some may say Dickinson is totally resistant to technology at Town Hall, but that’s not true, the mayor said.

“We’re investing and purchasing new technology where we need it,” Dickinson said.

Dickinson cited two large expenditures nearing almost $1 million in this year’s budget as proof he is not averse to investing in technology. Just under $475,000 was budgeted for hardware and software updates at the police department. The school board received almost $500,000 for technology updates, money the town will be reimbursed for through state grants.

“That’s close to $1 million right there without counting some much smaller amounts of money,” Dickinson said, a Republican. “Significant money is spent on technology every year.”

Technology has its place, he added, but the town must spend carefully.

Thompson said after working without Internet in his Town Hall office for years, “you generally adapt to it.”

There are ways to get around the lack of technology, he said.

“My business associates, colleagues and people who work for the state know to expect an email at either 5 a.m. or 10 p.m.,” Thompson explained.

Thompson gave these odd times because he uses his home computer to conduct work business.

For example, if Thompson needs information from the state for an afternoon meeting, he will email his contact from his personal computer in the morning before heading to work, making his request. He’ll then retrieve the state employee’s response email from a computer station with email capability in the Program Planning office at Town Hall, which is shared by the entire building.

The system may have some drawbacks. The state Freedom of Information Commission warns that when public employees conduct public business on their personal computers the information on that computer is “fair game under the Freedom of Information Act.”

“Just be aware that when you conduct business like that it’s public record,” said Tom Hennick, public education officer with the FOIC.

The lack of email becomes most difficult when working with the state, which communicates most often via email, Thompson said. Last week, he received a call from the state Department of Transportation regarding the New Haven-Hartford-Springfield railway currently under construction. The state needed to send information, Thompson said, but without email, the only option was fax. The state sent the fax, but it was of such poor quality it was unreadable. So instead, Thompson asked the DOT to mail the information, delaying the task.

These kinds of issues “are not the end of the world,” Thompson said. But there are “benefits to be derived” from adopting certain technologies, he said.

Limited Internet access is available in some town departments where it’s deemed necessary by the mayor. A Record-Journal poll of every Town Hall department on South Main Street shows that limited Internet is available in the Town Council office, as well as the Program Planning, Comptroller and Law departments. The Public Works Department, on Town Farm Road, has limited Internet access, as does the Water and Sewer Division and the Electric Division on John Street. The Parks and Recreation and Youth and Social Services departments also have limited access to the Internet on Fairfield Boulevard.

Town Clerk Barbara Thompson said she has email and access to 10 websites in her Town Hall office. Internet was installed last October because of a mandate from the state for balloting purposes, said Barbara Thompson (no relation to John Thompson). The use of email has made things easier, she said, especially since most outside vendors prefer to send bills online.

But there are still frustrations with such limited Internet access, Barbara Thompson said. Last week, the Town Clerk’s office installed four new computers that will be used for election spreadsheets and map printing. As part of the install, Thompson said, software was purchased. But the software was delivered online, and Thompson was not able to access and download it since the office can only access certain websites.

Due to this roadblock, “I had to hire an outside company to do the install,” she said. While the installer was able to do most of the job using discs, Internet was still necessary to finish the job, she said. So the installer was forced to use his cell phone to access the websites not allowed by the town.

Thompson said she was frustrated by the experience and the lack of Internet access.

“It’s silly,” she said. “It just makes things easier to do today.”

To a certain degree, Town Council members agree that technology updates should be phased in to create a more efficient Town Hall. Certain advances would allow residents to pay bills and fees online, councilors have argued.

“Technology is definitely one way to get efficiency in government,” said Councilor Jason Zandri, a Democrat opposing Dickinson in the mayoral race.

Zandri said that if he were mayor, he would make immediate changes that would improve productivity for town employees — such as email availability and better Internet access. Then he would suggest a 5- to 10-year plan “to bring Town Hall up to 21st Century standards.”

“We need to do improvements,” said John LeTourneau, a Republican. “We are in a world of technology ... It’s going to cost us a lot of money to catch up.”

Councilor Tom Laffin, a Republican, said technology replaces humans, “and that’s where the savings are and the efficiencies come in.”

“But I don’t see the mayor laying people off to buy a machine,” he said.

Fiscally, Laffin sides with Dickinson’s stance on technology, but operationally, the councilor said he would like to see advances.

Town Council Chairman Bob Parisi, a Republican, said that in his opinion technology generally creates costs. But “there are probably certain things that we could incorporate into our systems,” he said, such as online forms that residents could use to avoid a trip to Town Hall and direct deposit for town employees.

Direct deposit debate

Direct deposit is only offered to town employees who bank with the Wallingford Municipal Credit Union, according to Barbara Thompson. While direct deposit is viewed as a payroll system that saves money, Dickinson said he doesn’t believe it.

There are just over 1,000 employees working for the town who are paid on a weekly basis, the mayor said. With a weekly payroll system, he does not believe direct deposit will save money.

If a bi-weekly pay system were possible, the town would offer direct deposit, Dickinson said, but “so far there has not been agreement with all bargaining units.”

Zandri said he disagrees with his opponent’s stance for several reasons. Direct deposit could easily be offered while creating efficiencies, but “the town lacks the ability to negotiate with unions,” he said.

“We always end up in arbitration,” Zandri said. In past direct deposit negotiations, the town has asked for something in return from unions. But the return is built in with the efficiencies brought about by saving paper and eliminating the need for employees to pick up their checks and deposit them during the workday.

“Every single company, more or less, on the planet, offers it,” Zandri said of direct deposit.

Dickinson argued some employees will still want paper checks, that will create more costs.

Dickinson lacks faith in technology, and that’s why the town hasn’t adopted direct deposit, Zandri said.

“I don’t know what the argument is other than ‘I don’t want to use a computer,’ ” he said. “That’s the argument.”

aragali@record-journal.com (203) 317-2224 Twitter: @Andyragz



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