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Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Plan to put mayor’s budget online renews Wallingford tech debate

As published in the Record Journal Tuesday March 6, 2012

By Dan Ivers
Record-Journal staff
(203) 317-2275

WALLINGFORD — The Town Council has engaged in a brief debate over whether to post Mayor William W. Dickinson Jr.’s budget proposal on the town’s website after it is unveiled next month.

In the context of a discussion about Councilor Craig Fishbein’s plan to include details on changes in spending for each town department on annual tax bills, fellow Republican John LeTourneau proposed posting the budget online. Dickinson, at the council meeting last week, voiced his opposition to the idea, saying he doubted many residents would view the document and questioned whether it might occupy technical staff’s time.

While placing documents related to the budget process is commonplace in most towns, Wallingford is far from typical when it comes to technology. Internet access is available in a handful of Town Hall offices, but only where state or federal law requires it.

Similar debates are nothing new in Wallingford, where councilors and employees are split on Dickinson’s stringent attitude toward technical advancements.

“I agree that not every employee in Town Hall needs a terminal on their desk,” Le-Tourneau said. “But when we have the town clerk’s office having to go up to the third floor to check an e-mail account, it’s absolutely ludicrous.”

Former Town Planner Linda Bush, who retired last week, called the policy “very frustrating” during a recent appearance on local public access television, saying employees at Town Hall wasted a significant amount of time waiting to use two Internet-enabled computers. On Monday, Dickinson said he believed the town would be able to accommodate Le-Tourneau’s request, but defended his approach toward adding any additional duties for employees.

“The question is time constraints. It’s a question of what has to be accomplished,” he said. “If we had a lot of people asking for the budget and we were spending a lot of money mailing it out to them, you’d look for ways to avoid that cost. We don’t have that. We’re responding to something that probably isn’t a problem.”

Dickinson’s approach to technology is nearly the opposite of that of another local chief town executive, Southington Town Manager Garry Brumback. In his first two budgets, Brumback has set aside $1.15 million for systems upgrades and to transfer work formerly done on paper to computer. He said he plans to expand the number of online and computerized services in Town Hall over the next few years to mirror the online services already prevalent in the private sector, envisioning a virtual Town Hall “My hope is that in three years, people will forget they only had access to Town Hall through brick and mortar,” Brumback said last week.

His end goal is for most Town Hall business to be completed online — eliminating the need for most people to visit Town Hall unless they choose to do so.

In 2010, the Wallingford Town Council formed an Information Technology Committee, which met several times to discuss potential improvements.

The group eventually passed on a report to Dickinson that recommended an audit and cost-benefit analysis of the town’s telephone systems, as well as an effort to post property records available in the assessor’s office on the town website.

Both suggestions failed to move beyond the discussion phase, however, and the Informational Technology Committee appears to have been disbanded. It has not met in nearly a year, and co-chairs Fishbein and LeTourneau said it is unlikely to be reformed.

Instead, the council will likely deal with technology-related issues, such as that regarding posting the budget proposal online, on an individual basis. The issue was tabled and will be revisited at its meeting next week, and Le-Tourneau said he was confident he would have enough support to pass the measure.

Jason Zandri, a newly elected Democrat, said he believed the resistance to a move as simple as uploading an already completed PDF document was evidence of a larger aversion to technology, rather than a decision about money or employee efficiency.

“For him, it’s a principle thing,” he said. “It’s shortsighted. We can sit there and argue all day how many people are going to access this online, but if we don’t put it up there, it won’t be any more than zero.”

For some councilors, however, a desire to have the budget online does not equate to total disagreement with Dickinson’s wider approach. Fishbein said that he supports the posting for the sake of public transparency, but values close inspection of any move that might require some investment of taxpayer funds.

Dickinson “is very frugal and I think he is the best protector of our taxpayer dollars,” he said. “He is certainly willing to have a conversation. His question always comes around to ‘Show me the benefit or the cost savings to the town.’ ”