A technology vendor to the city of New Orleans shut down a key computer system Monday because the city hasn’t paid “hundreds of thousands of dollars” in past-due bills, the contractor said Wednesday.

Based on a tip from a developer unable to move a project forward, The Lens uncovered the problem in a joint investigation with Fox 8 News.

The computer system for the city’s Safety and Permits Department has been inaccessible since Monday evening, frustrating contractors and homeowners looking for basic city services. Likewise, the system has made it tougher on the city employees. The software provides an automated system for building inspectors to work from the field.

Two city employees in the permits department said Wednesday morning that they weren’t issuing permits at all.

A spokeswoman for Mayor Ray Nagin said the issue was being resolved, but she didn’t know whether that involved actually paying the vendor, Accela Inc. of San Ramon, Calif.

As of Wednesday afternoon, access still had not been restored.

Until the computer system is up, city employees were told to issue permits manually and then enter them into the system later, spokeswoman Ceeon Quiett said. Asked about people who already had been turned away empty handed, Quiett said, “I don’t know what happened earlier.”

She also said she didn’t know how much the city owes Accela.

The problem affects not only the City Hall computers, but also the kiosks set up at Winn-Dixie grocery stores by the city, which put them there to make permitting more accessible. Those terminals were dead Tuesday and Wednesday.

Accela spokesman Paul Davis told Fox 8 said the company works with hundreds of government agencies across the country, and they’ve never had to shut down anyone.

“Following many months of a lack of communication, we deactivated, and that’s unprecedented for us,” Davis told Fox 8 news.

He declined to say precisely how much was owed, but he said, “It goes into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

Interviewed outside the mayor’s office Wednesday morning, city technology chief Harrison Boyd said he was just getting back into town and getting familiar with the problem. He said no one told him about it Tuesday.

But residents are telling others about the hassles that are bedeviling their efforts to get permits for electrical and mechanical work, as well as overall building permits.

City Council member Stacy Head told Fox 8 that her office has fielded several complaints.

Although Quiett began a brief discussion of the problem by pointing out that the City Council cut $7 million from the operating budget over the objections of the Nagin administration, Head said that’s not part of this problem.

She said the council approved money for payments to vendors such as Accela, but it is up to Nagin and his administration to keep track of bills and make sure they’re paid on time.

Steve Beatty

Steve Beatty is the publisher and chief executive officer of The Lens. He worked as an editor for The Times-Picayune for 15 years, leaving New Orleans just before Katrina to take a position as an editor...