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Service Is a Struggle for Virtual Town Halls

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 technology initiatives.
"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 communications.
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 ( 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 volunteer Webmaster.
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 ( /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 fosters communication.
"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 ( with help from Virtual Town Hall (, 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,, 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 ( 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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