City permits system unplugged because of unpaid bills

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.

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About 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 at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and quickly rising through the ranks to be an editor of the newspaper’s watchdog investigative team. He returned to New Orleans in May of 2009. He can be reached at (504) 655-2375.

  • I have no sympathy for Nagin’s unpaid bills, but I have a huge problem with software that allows a vendor unfettered back door access which might store any of my personal data.

  • jeffrey

    What Folse said. What, exactly, gives any vendor/contractor/creditor the right to hold public services hostage under any circumstance? Surely the city’s negligence is an issue here, but the arrogance on the part of the contractor is every bit as serious.

  • Dan Rogers

    Jeffrey’s comment is completely unrealistic. All vendors must have the right to withhold their products or services if any entity — including a government — doesn’t attempt to make payments. And all organizations — including governments — have a responsibility to pay their bills. If private companies had no recourse with governments, then no one would want to sell to governments. And you can be sure that shady governments like Nagin’s would flout their bills all the time. I know because I’ve worked for companies that sell to government. No company likes to conduct business this way. It’s not good for anyone, and I’m sure that vendor would have preferred to get paid and avoid all of this hassle.

  • Matt

    Indeed. jeffrey is way off base – how are contractors supposed to stay in business without their bills getting paid? They’re not charities.

    Also, permits are public records, so I’m not sure what the problem is that Mark is trying to refer to. Would he rather everything be kept on paper in file cabinets in a basement? There aren’t many municipalities left that haven’t computerized their permitting systems.

  • Both sides are assholes, but what else can the contractor do?

    Guess we might as well take a collective vacation until May.

  • Matt

    Actually, Accela’s got some pretty powerful software that’s used all over the country, and they’ve allowed the city to go months without paying their bills. Why are they assholes? What exactly is their recourse other than what they did?

  • jeffrey

    Glad to know everybody agrees that citizens come third in the pecking order here.

  • Migou

    Aside from the obvious blame on the city for the failure to pay its bills, there are other foreseeable situations in which the city might want to have copies of the records (change of vendors, extended power outages, bankruptcy of provider). So the city should have made provisions to at least download the data and have copies on its own servers. The company is in the right; the city is in the wrong; and the citizens are getting the shaft. More rotten tomatoes for the Nagin Administration for screwing us twice on this one.

  • Alexander Ricotta

    I am disgusted that the city would even do business with a company like this. What kind of partnership is this? We have been ravaged by mother nature and the recovery has been long are hard. Are these the the type of partners we have chosen to help us rebuild. I understand that money is due, I dont believe no one would contest that, apparently or for lack of admitting to it…..officials are now just becoming aware. Im sure funds will magically appear and this issue will be resolved. Well why couldnt that have happened without the citizens being the ones that have to suffer. Shame on you Accela, I would not support anyone who would support these types of parnerships. The citizens should have come first.

  • Matt

    “officials are now just becoming aware” of having to pay Accela’s bill?

    So if I ignore my electric bill for months on end, and only decide to do something about it when the power gets turned off, the electric company is being mean and I can use my “surprise” at losing my lights as an excuse?

    Contracts don’t just go one way. The city has responsibilities, and if they fail to fulfill them, the contractor has rights. Does anyone seriously think Accela did this lightly, or that they hadn’t been sending bill after bill to the city? The stories about the city not paying its bills to contractors big and small are legion – this one was just more high profile.

    Also, how do you think Accela’s employees get paid? Don’t they have as much right to gainful employment as citizens in New Orleans do to file a permit (which they were able to to on a temporary basis anyway)?