Service Is a Struggle for Virtual Town Halls
By THOMAS J. FITZGERALD
AS the Internet has grown up and consumers have become accustomed to going
online for everything from banking to buying movie tickets, cities large and
small have joined in by making more municipal services available on the Web.
The motivation was twofold. Effective municipal Web sites made life easier for
citizens, the local governments' main customers. They also saved money by
freeing government employees to do other work.
But in an era of budget cutbacks and a sputtering economy, many local
governments have found themselves forced to hold back on the deployment of
"e-government." In states where tax cuts and other factors have led to
declines in revenue, aid to cities and towns has been cut, stifling some
"There's been a trickle-down effect," says Cindy Mullan, an
information systems manager for the city of St. Paul. Because it is getting less
money from Minnesota's state government, St. Paul has delayed buying the
centerpiece of its Web initiative, Ms. Mullan said, a content-management system
that was expected to improve efficiency by making it easier and faster for city
departments to put information on the Internet and to manage it once it was
there. "We're moving ahead with pieces of the initiative, but not the
biggest part," she said. "It's a frustration. We were hoping to get
more timely information out there."
Still, even as some municipalities scale back, others are pressing ahead with
plans to integrate government services more tightly with their Web sites.
Chesapeake, Va., created a site (www.cityofchesapeake .net) that allows
residents to pay property taxes, peruse real estate assessment values and even
watch programming on the city's cable television channel. Although it, too, has
suffered a cutback in state budget allocations, Chesapeake has set aside money
for its long-range plan to add more services.
City officials say their goal is to meet residents' expectations of a steady
increase in government services on the Internet and predict that the site, which
was developed by the city's information technology staff, will eventually help
pay for itself through savings on other labor costs. "We think that once we
are a little farther down the road, it is going to take the place of staffing in
certain areas," said Mark S. Cox, the city's director of public
In smaller towns, which lack the potential economies of scale that would justify
costly Internet initiatives, officials are nonetheless anxious to offer Web
access to registration for recreational activities, permit applications and
other mundane activities that would otherwise require a trip to town hall. While
some already do provide such e-services, many face insurmountable hurdles to
building even basic informational sites.
The mayor and board of trustees in Scotia, N.Y., a town of 7,900, recently
considered developing a Web site but decided to devote workers' efforts to other
priorities. "It takes a lot of time to put a Web site together as well as
to maintain it," said Wendy Ashley, the village clerk treasurer. "And
we don't have anyone on the staff with the expertise."
In some small communities, enthusiastic citizens have pitched in to help hold
down the costs of putting the local government on the Internet. In Franklin,
Mass., volunteers developed an innovative site (www.franklin.ma.us) that enables
town officials, civic groups and teachers to create their own interactive Web
pages and to manage the content of the pages themselves. The only cost to the
town is a monthly fee of $79 for the Web host, said Les Barnes, the site's
Fran Buchheister, a fourth grade teacher at Oak Street Elementary School in
Franklin, is one of many teachers who take advantage of the site. Mrs.
Buchheister created an interactive Web site (www.franklin.ma.us
/auto/schools/oak/classrooms/buchheister) for her classroom with links to online
educational resources and exercises that the students can do in class or at
home. By posting homework assignments, vocabulary lessons and parent surveys,
she said, the site gives parents quick access to classroom activities and
"It works better when we work together,'' Mrs. Buchheister said.
Setting up and managing the Web pages requires only an Internet-connected
computer with a Web browser. The easy-to-use features of the site were
programmed by a volunteer, Phil Grove, using Web-site development tools like
Active Server Pages, VBScript (a version of Visual Basic) and Microsoft Access.
Other communities have turned to outside companies for help. George Finch, the
city manager of Eastport, Me., which has a population of just 1,640, created a
new site (www.eastportme.com) with help from Virtual Town Hall (www.virtualtownhall.net),
one of several companies that have developed systems that allow municipal
employees without technical expertise to manage the content of a site. (Others
are GovOffice, www.govoffice.com, for small to medium-size municipalities, and
EzGov, www.ezgov .com, a pioneer in the field that works mainly with larger
entities like federal agencies and state and county governments.)
Eastport's site, which publishes city council agendas, a calendar of events and
contact information for city departments, cost the town a $500 setup fee plus
$1,200 annually. While the city does not expect to save money with the site, Mr.
Finch said, he considers the expense worthwhile. "For us, the Internet is a
very valuable tool for keeping the public informed," he said.
Likewise, in Bozeman, Mont., a town of about 30,000, a Virtual Town Hall module
was added to the city's main site to make it easier for city employees to
publish documents like the minutes of city commission meetings. The city
manager, Clark Johnson, said the site (www.bozeman.net) had reduced some costs
and improved efficiency by freeing employees from tasks like answering phones.
Over all, however, for most small towns, "Web sites do not save you
money," Mr. Johnson said. "If you have forms that get filled out on
the Web, you still have to process those forms just as if the person had brought
them in to you."
But the real point, some municipal officials contend, is not whether local
governments save money by doing business online. The biggest beneficiaries, they
say, are the individuals and businesses who use the systems. "If you look
at who is saving money on this, it's probably the customers," said Ms.
Mullan, the St. Paul official. "If you put a dollar amount on what their
time is worth and you can save them time, then you are saving them money."
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