Town adopts new computer program for budgeting
It's lunchtime on Wednesday at the Accounting and Finance office in Town Hall. Phones are ringing and voices are flying back and forth across the room. Stacks of paper top tables and desks. There's a sense of urgency in the air.
"We'll be celebrating Thanksgiving here," someone said in despair.
In a cluttered office in back, Linda Gardner, the town's budget director, is sitting with Maura Ritz, the town librarian. They're working through a proposed budget for the 2010-11 fiscal year. Gardner has been meeting with all town department heads in the past couple weeks and will continue to do so through early December. She's charged with assembling their requests into a format for First Selectman Ken Flatto to review in December and January.
Ordinarily, late November is a busy time of the year for Garnder, but a thick green binder on her desk suggests that this year could be doubly so. The word "MUNIS" is written across the binder's spine. That's the name of the town's new computer program used for organizing payrolls, purchases and budgets.
The point of MUNIS is to cut back on paperwork, computerize record-keeping and decentralize budget inputting to the different departments across town. But like with any change in software, its adoption means ironing out quirks and solving unexpected problems; technological growing pains.
The town's payroll process adopted MUNIS in January. Thomas Bremer, Flatto's chief of staff, said that after early challenges it's been "rocking and rolling ever since."
The town's purchasing division adopted MUNIS in July, and Bremer said the problems there have been growing more infrequent. Now its time for the budget team to undergo the change. Bremer expects it will have its own manageable challenges.
"There's a sea of change here," Bremer said in his office on Wednesday morning. "For a long time, I don't think the town was very technologically focused. This is forcing the employees to be so. This can be the springboard to all sorts of other technological innovations."
For the past 15 years, the town has worked with a system called "Phoenix." But in late winter 2008, it received word that the company that serviced the program would do so no more. If something went wrong afterwards, Bremer said, there would be no one to call for assistance.
But why did it take 15 years for an upgrade?
"MUNIS is very expensive," said Bremer, citing it as a $1.7 million investment. "I think, to the town's credit, it made do with what it had till it couldn't make do anymore."
After receiving word that Phoenix would be discontinued, the town interviewed a variety of vendors, Bremer said. MUNIS is the most popular program in the state, he said, with some 50 to 60 towns using it.
Westport adopted the program last year. According to Paula Castiglia, the financial coordinator in that town, who has worked in the office for 26 years, the program's been helpful.
"Everything used to be handwritten and there'd be one person entering it into the system," she said, referring to herself. "I would have to key it all in. But this way, everything starts with the departments and comes to us. It's efficient and we like it. It saves months of work; it's still a long process, but the entry part has been reduced drastically."
Bremer agreed that the program pushes budgetary responsibility down to the department level. Department heads will now have up-to-the-minute financial information without having to contact the finance department. That should help prevent the spending of money that departments don't actually have.
"Say a department says, `I want to go buy 100 widgets for $10,000.' The system could say, `Go ahead,'" Bremer said. "But it could also say, `What are you doing? You don't have that money.'"
At the end of the year, then, the town should be less likely to find departments over-budget. "It forces the department head to be much more conscious of their budget on a daily basis," Bremer said.
If all goes well, come next Thanksgiving, Gardner's job will be streamlined and easy as pumpkin pie.
Even so, she seems to be surviving this year despite the new system.
"We're optimistic," she told a visitor on Wednesday, looking up from the town libraries' proposed budget.
"Linda is a great helper," Ritz said. "When I have questions, she answers them. It's going to work well. The program has so much more functionality than it used to. I can do lots of new things."