New York City is facing a mother of all computer glitches that could cause key city services to crash in the next two years. Welfare, pension and payroll checks for thousands of New Yorkers may be mailed or computed incorrectly, or stop flowing from government coffers.
Computers that handle vital information, from birth certificates to tax assessments, also could go on the blink.
The problem is in mainframe computers that use just two digits to store dates and aren’t programed beyond the 20th century. In three years, when the calendar changes to a “00” year, the computers will read 1900, not 2000.
The computers then could assume that a driver’s license set to expire Feb. 1, 2000, had expired 100 years earlier.
Known as the Year 2000, or Y2K, problem, it affects thousands of computers nationwide and has sparked a huge effort in corporate America to solve the problem.
But the city is far behind some private corporations in coming to grips with the glitch.
New York won’t even have a full assessment of what needs to be done until June, the Daily News has learned.
“Every New Yorker that depends upon the city to send a check could be at risk of not receiving that check,” said City Councilman Andrew Eristoff (R-Manhattan), chairman of the Council Task Force on Technology in Government.
Donna Lynne, director of the mayor’s Office of Operations, said the city is set to hire a consultant this month to inventory city computer systems and assess what needs to be fixed, and at what cost.
If city agencies are saying at this late date that they’re still assessing the situation, “they’re probably dead meat,” said Howard Rubin, chairman of the Hunter College computer science department and a nationally recognized expert on the Year 2000 problem.
Computer programs tripped up by the date could grind to a halt or spit out unpredictably inaccurate data.
If agencies don’t tackle the Y2K problem, said Steve Newman, first deputy city controller, “all kinds of financial analysis, budget analysis, would just be wrong.”
Some city agencies, like the Department of Finance, which spent about $30 million on a new system in 1992, are replacing aging computers with modern units that solve the problem.
The mayor’s Office of Management and Budget, city controller’s office and city Financial Information Services Agency plan to replace accounting and bookkeeping programs rather than try to fix the date problem.
Sources close to the project said it should cost about $50 million, although no official estimates were available.
Lynne said systems the city bought in the past 18 months for the Fire, Police and other departments don’t have the problem.
Fixing the glitch throughout city government could require a mind-numbing process of investigating millions of lines of computer program commands. Experts said it could require an army of costly outside consultants and overtime for city employes.
For example, sources at the Human Resources Administration said it has more than 3 million lines of computer code to review. The controller’s office has 500,000 lines of code that covers monthly pension checks for 220,000 retired city employes.