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OpinionColumnistsLane Filler

Why people lose faith in government

The Theodore Roosevelt Executive & Legislative Building in

The Theodore Roosevelt Executive & Legislative Building in Mineola. Credit: Newsday/Thomas A. Ferrara

If a coalition of libertarian-leaning tax bashers were looking for a government to batter with their "Don't Tread On Me" placards, they could not find a better target than Nassau County. Newsday reported on Sunday that Nassau has failed to switch over to a computer system it began working toward in 2007, the year the iPhone was introduced.

The cost so far for the project, originally intended to be completed in 2012 and merge all the county's computer systems, is a borrowed $43.4 million, plus interest. Today, county officials say they hope to get just the part of the system that handles human resources functions like payroll, for some departments, running by the end of February. Meanwhile, the computers the county uses are no longer supported by their makers or software providers and demand operator skills not widely taught since the Commodore 64 was hot.

So what happened over the course of three county administrations to keep the project from launching? Government happened.

The project began in earnest in 2009 at the end of Thomas Suozzi's final term as county executive. Now, County Executive Laura Curran is reaping the fallout. But most of the failure took place under Edward Mangano, who served from 2010 until 2017.

Mangano's information technology commissioner was Ed Eisenstein, who claimed such systems are so hard to implement that similar projects have a national failure rate of 50 percent. Eisenstein said union work and pay rules made it nearly impossible to program the new system.

There is some truth to that. The county's union contracts are complex, with differentials and overtime and dozens of other dips and curlicues that add a little pay here and a bit more there. There is no logistical reason for such complicated deals, which are a headache for the county and don't make employees more productive or the system work better. And it adds to Eisenstein's argument that some of this payroll figuring is still done manually.

But computers can be programmed to handle pay according to any rules, just as they can pilot rockets to Mars. Other municipalities face similar challenges and manage through them. And this phase of the computer project, will not even include the payroll procedures of the county's police unions, its most complex contracts.

The real issues are management and accountability. Eisenstein, 46, says he had about 160 employees when he was with the county. He says he has no college degree, though he took classes at Nassau Community College, and his resume does not indicate experience that would have prepared him to run a huge county IT department.

In 2011, Grant Thornton, a consulting company hired to assess county operations, said the project was crucial and failing to implement it could be disastrous, but called it "orphaned," and said it "lacked the necessary leadership."

By 2015, CMA Consulting Services, which was run by Republican former State Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno when the county hired it in 2009, was let go, having been paid about $19 million. The project was taken "in house," where it never advanced. No county employees have been fired in connection with this failed project.

And now it's part of the mess Curran inherited, like the county's crumbling roads and its broken assessment system, and somehow part of a challenge bigger than addressing those operational problems.

People don't think government works anymore, particularly in Nassau County, but everywhere else, too. The only way to change their minds is competent, honest government.

People don't love paying taxes for services, but they'll do it. Making them pay taxes for incompetence and waste, though? That's how tea gets thrown into the harbor.

Lane Filler is a member of Newsday's editorial board.

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