A Taxing Problem

Why are two candidates for assessor trying to take credit for a computer system that has been an abysmal failure?

John Farrell so fervently believes he has a chance of winning the election for city assessor on March 5 that he has put $50,000 of his own money into the campaign. Assistant Assessor Farrell -- who has served as a top lieutenant to his election opponent, Assessor Doris Ward, for 10 years -- is centering his campaign around the slogan "Hire the most qualified."

Smiling coyly, Farrell mentions that he was recently interviewed by the FBI about his boss' use of city money to finance her re-election bid for a third term. Farrell says he was acting as "just an administrator trying to do the right thing" when he gave a copy of an internal office memorandum to reporters from the San Francisco Chronicle, who wrote several stories about Ward's alleged misappropriation of tens of thousands of dollars in government funds for political purposes. (Ward has acknowledged some misuse of public money and returned $563.)

But his proudest achievement, the candidate beams, was designing and installing the Assessor-Recorder's "phenomenal" new computer system, called E-Z Access, which is supposed to streamline the collection of property taxes by integrating the Assessor-Recorder database with the computer systems run by the tax collector and the Department of Building Inspection.

Farrell isn't the only one touting the computer system, which runs on IBM mainframe machines. His opponent, Ward, also claims that installing the "21st-century" software is her finest accomplishment in office. On the campaign trail she has boasted that her office was "computer dysfunctional" until she bought the E-Z Access software.

What's remarkable about those claims is not that two people are taking credit for the same project, but that anyone would want his name associated with the assessor's computer system. Public records show that the 6-year-old system has had a long and frustrating history of failure and is still thwarting the city's efforts to more efficiently assess real estate and collect property taxes.

A career employee inside the Assessor-Recorder's Office, who asked not to be identified out of "fear of retaliation by Ward," described the staff's losing battle against E-Z Access in an interview last week. "It does not work. It takes more time than the old system. It's DOS-based!

"There is Windows software that you can run on a PC desktop that does a much, much better job," the source said.

Today, four years after the project was originally scheduled to be finished, the supposedly automatic E-Z Access system of updating the tax database as buildings are sold, remodeled, or torn down is causing tax bills to be delayed, says Peter Fatooh, a longtime member of the Assessment Appeals Board, a city agency that oversees disputes between the assessor and property owners.

The software has failed to integrate property data from various city departments, which was the principal reason the project was undertaken. Hope for making the software work efficiently has apparently been dashed for the foreseeable future; sources say clerks are making do with jury-rigged solutions to try to keep property rolls current.

The assessor had many opportunities to ditch the software's vendor and recover some of the project's eventual $5.7 million cost. She did not, despite the fact that top-ranking city officials repeatedly urged her to abandon the doomed project. Ward declined to return phone calls requesting comment.

The system's problems were evident early on. Records show that the multidepartment management committee that oversaw the project, a committee upon which Ward sat, wrote in September 1998 that a substantial part of the project should be "discontinued" because the software "does not appear to be capable of implementing a California tax system." The committee complained that the "product is the same as the existing personal property tax system ... and is not a real improvement over the current system." The committee reported that "the product does not demonstrate technical [programming] work that is consistent with generally accepted standards."

Despite this damning assessment, Ward did not stop the installation of the software, purchased from Easy Access Inc. She continued to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to Easy Access even after City Attorney Louise Renne strongly suggested the company be fined $500,000 for breaking its contract with the city. Ward did not pursue Renne's recommendation.

City records reveal that Easy Access would not have been selected to design the new tax software system except for Ward's championing. The tiny company, owned and operated by William Hamer of McAllen, Texas, was awarded the contract in 1996, even though its bid was $1 million higher than the "lowest responsible bidder." The city's computer experts were generally opposed to contracting with Easy Access, which had little if any experience with successfully programming California property tax databases. The assessor of Los Angeles wrote to Ward advising her to avoid the firm.

In the spring of 1999, city officials determined that San Francisco's ability to collect property taxes was actually being undermined by the project's chronic delays and inadequacies. The Assessor-Recorder's Office responded by spending more than half a million dollars on hiring consultants to re-engineer the faulty software -- to little avail, since the product "that was delivered by Easy Access Inc. does not meet contractual specifications," according to a report signed by Controller Edward Harrington, Tax Collector Richard Sullivan, and Ward.

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