Rush Is on to Bring Government Computers Into 21st Century


They knew it was coming, of course, the year 2000. But only recently did Orange County government officials start defending themselves, some more aggressively than others, from all of those zeros.

The digits, if left alone, could mess up welfare payments and retirement benefits. They could do a number on jail sentences and property taxes. They even have the power to crush the stock market and rearrange radar screens.

“They’re mighty little things,” said one county official who knows the zeros intimately. “They’re maddening.”

Their problem is actually a case of mistaken identity. Today’s computer systems, first designed in the 1960s and ‘70s, use a two-digit method to acknowledge the year. For example, computers read the year 1955 as “55.”


That means when the date rolls to 2000, computers will, in their rigid logic, believe it’s actually 1900. One damaging result could be that the machines will subtract a date of birth from what it calculates to be the current year, concluding a person is “negative” years old and not eligible for checks or other benefits.

“So much for forging into the new century gracefully,” said county computer chief Leo Crawford. “When they see those numbers, our computers could say, ‘Nope, bad answer,’ and just stop running. No second try.”

The 2000 problem, which many experts are calling the “millennium virus,” is a global one, affecting governments and businesses large and small.

It will cost $30 billion over the next two years to adjust the federal government’s software; a worldwide fix is estimated at $600 billion. Crawford said somewhere between $5 million and $10 million should cover the tab for county government departments.


City governments in Orange County have widely different approaches to a solution. Some, like Anaheim and Costa Mesa, have been working on the issue for years, when alarmed computer consultants first started making noise.

Anaheim officials are evaluating each of the city’s computer systems to decide whether to repair, replace or retire them. Programs that are date-critical, such as the ones that control business licensing and other financial systems, are already being changed.

Robb McIntosh, systems project manager for Anaheim, expects to have the 2000 bug under control by Jan. 1, 1999, at an estimated cost of $3 million.

“This is absolutely one project you can’t delay,” he said. “Even though we’re on top of it, there’s always anxiety about getting there on time.”

Other cities that have planned for years to upgrade or overhaul their entire computer systems have accelerated the projects. For example, Costa Mesa has been upgrading computers for the past 18 months and expects to have the new system ready by spring 1998.

City communications director Vince Whelan said replacing the 20-year-old system will cost about $4 million and automatically take care of the “millennium virus.”

“We planned to do the new system before we knew much about the [bug], so we’re lucky we don’t have to worry too much about it now,” Whelan said. “But that’s if you want to call spending $4 million lucky.”

Santa Ana officials plan to spend $25 million over the next 10 years expanding their computer systems, which are housed in dozens of buildings throughout the city.


“It’s a major overhaul,” said Debra Kurita, assistant city manager. “Originally, it wasn’t driven by the year 2000 issue, but the bug has certainly made us prioritize our approach.”

Some approaches are less urgent in smaller cities, like Fountain Valley, which plans to get a private vendor to provide a fix whenever there’s room in the budget. City Manager Raymond H. Kromer said the issue first came up at a meeting last week, but estimated costs are not yet clear.

“We’ll probably get one of our computer consultants to take care of the 100 or so [personal computers] we have around here,” Kromer said.

The city will likely hire an outside vendor to handle the changes on Fountain Valley’s two mainframes, he said, adding he is surprised to learn how much other agencies are spending on the problem.

“When I heard what the [Orange County Transportation Authority] was spending, I almost fell over,” Kromer said.

He wasn’t alone. When OCTA officials last month decided to upgrade the agency’s computer system to reflect correct dates after 2000, board member Todd Spitzer called the project’s $1.5-million price tag “amazing.” He asked that all of the county’s computer contracts be reviewed for negligence, saying: “If I were a consultant and I led someone into this chaos, I should be sued.”


Millennial Mess


Here is a look at what some cities will spend to upgrade government computer systems to recognize and acknowledge the year 2000:

Anaheim: $3 million; completion date, Jan. 1, 1999

Costa Mesa: $4 million; completion date, spring 1998*

Irvine: At least $1.5 million each year for the next four years; completion date, Jan. 1, 2000*

Mission Viejo: $7,000, millennium bug will be fixed under city’s yearly maintenance contract with private system managers; completion date, December 1997

Santa Ana: $25 million for complete system overhaul during next 10 years; project will include correcting the year 2000 glitch and upgrading systems throughout city

Orange County government systems: $5 million to $10 million; completion date, Jan. 1, 2000

* Cost includes other system upgrades

Source: Individual cities

Researched by BONNIE HAYES / For The Times