Pittsburgh and Allegheny County controllers laud joint financial software system

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Four years ago, Pittsburgh city government's financial nerve center crashed.

For several days, no one in the City-County Building could pull up anything in the city's ledger -- be it the newest contract, when the payroll was due or how many pencils had been bought the week before.

City Controller Michael Lamb and Allegheny County Controller Chelsa Wagner want to make sure that never happens again, building a shared financial system they say will improve reliability and cut costs, all while maintaining the firewall between the city and county checkbooks.

Last week, the two controllers led tours of the Shared Services Center, an office in the City-County Building that embodies the cooperation between the two governments. Through the center's efforts, Pittsburgh is now nearly fully linked into the JD Edwards financial management system, the same Oracle product the county uses -- and a few steps above the software package that shut down in 2009.

"This is a tremendous success story of government," Ms. Wagner said last week.

Under the new system, both governments share the JD Edwards software license, a hefty expense that can run into the millions. They also share servers and support teams, who can assist either administration with technical or financial questions.

Included in the combined financial system is the county executive, the city mayor, both controllers and the Allegheny County Department of Human Services.

Pittsburgh previously ran a heavily modified version of PeopleSoft, which Mr. Lamb said had been tweaked and reworked until it was unrecognizable. When it broke down, no one from the parent company could fix it.

When the city first looked at replacing the antiquated system, sellers told them it would cost $10 million to $15 million. By cooperating with the county, the city paid just $3.6 million, Mr. Lamb said.

Using in-house staff cuts tech support costs by one-third, with an average cost of $30-$50 an hour beating the consultant rate of $150-$250. The center, which is run by Ms. Wagner's staff, also hosts a few staffers from Mr. Lamb's department who can help out with city-specific issues.

In joining forces, they've built a system that is the envy of Dick's Sporting Goods, Starkist and the government of Bermuda, all of whom have expressed interest in learning more about the partnership. While the city is now tracking general ledger expenses through the new system, Mr. Lamb says paperless processing and payroll are still to come. On Ms. Wagner's end, the county does not yet put contracts online, as the city controller's office does.

Nevertheless, both elected officials seemed pleased that by working together they were able to make a system that's more reliable for both.

"Now we are on a system that is supported," Mr. Lamb said. "We have that first tier response -- and we're able to rapidly respond to problems."

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Andrew McGill: amcgill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1497.


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