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Stepping into the 21st Century

The Town's IT Department is slowly bringing Fairfield nearer the cutting edge

Editor's note: This is the final "The Way I See It" column until after the Nov. 8 municipal election.

“People love to compare towns and if you look down the coast, you will see that Greenwich, New Canaan, and Westport are ahead of us,” Information Technology Director Donald Leslie told me recently.

Deep in the bowels of Sullivan-Independence Hall, the town’s IT Department labors to keep town departments connected and productive. The 35 year tech veteran has been in his post about three years and feels he’s still playing catch-up. Prior to his arrival, the town had been without a specific IT director for a year and that followed a period when the school system’s IT Manager Nancy Byrnes was trying to cover the town as well.

Leslie gives Byrnes a lot of credit for handling two positions at the same time while reporting to two directors.

“It was messy,” Leslie said with a laugh, describing the state of affairs when he took over. His fairly lean operation for a town our size does pretty well. The Matrix operational audit recommended a webmaster be hired to manage the town’s various websites, but such an acquisition isn’t in the foreseeable future.

It’s easy to save money in a tight budget by slicing into both technology and maintenance but of course that merely delays the inevitable. As a result, major technology advances occur when there’s little choice. For example, the town’s accounting system was so antiquated there was no one to manage it so the MUNIS system was purchased just before Leslie joined the town staff.

Gesturing towards his desk phone, Leslie noted the town’s phone system is 13 years old and so ancient that there’s no light to indicate a voicemail is waiting. They’re no longer making parts for the hardware, requiring the support vendor to scavenge what they need. Leslie is hopeful the system will be overhauled entirely and yes, there would be a significant capital outlay at the outset, but efficiencies would see cost savings in the years that follow.

Leslie envisions a Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) that would enable the department heads to remain connected when away from their offices.

At present, the town supports Microsoft products, and Windows XP is about to no longer be supported by the manufacturer, pushing Leslie to begin upgrading the operating systems. Similarly, the productivity software is Office 2003 despite Office 2010 now available.

With every new computer being replaced, Leslie is slowly making the transition, a project slowed by the budget cut enacted by the Representative Town Meeting earlier this month. He’s been training groups of employees in how to use the new OS, enticing them with the 100 new desktop computers recently purchased.

Leslie’s biggest concern, though, is his location. Sullivan-Independence Hall is in a flood plain and sitting in the basement makes Leslie feel the town’s servers are vulnerable. Recently, a new backup server was put into service at Fairfield Woods Branch Library, and while not robust enough to handle everything in town in case of disaster, services could be restored from the backup within 30 minutes. Additionally, if something were to wipe out the town’s offices, offsite tape backups exist.

Still, the state is seeking to consolidate its Public Safety Access Points down from the current 160, and Leslie envisions working with nearby towns including Weston, Redding and Easton to make Fairfield eligible for state grants allowing them to upgrade their backup capabilities, with the funds going towards building proper space when Woods’ proposed renovations get under way in the future.

All of this will make the town work more efficiently, and another goal is to begin unifying the databases currently used by the town. Cyril Clancy, a member of the staff, has been working tirelessly on these multiple database conversions and updates. As a result, there could come a day when residents delinquent with one department could not use other town services without making good on the debt, be it an overdue library fine or a parking ticket.

Last June, I a task force being formed to update and integrate the town’s various websites. Headed by Merry Uk, it’s been a slow process given how busy everyone is; managing the town’s sites remains a part-time activity for most and will remain that way until a town webmaster is funded.

“Right now, our web presence is a little bit scattered and while we shouldn’t be uniform in appearance and functionality, we could use at least the same resources,” Uk told me then. Leslie is hopeful Fairfield-branded websites with a commonality in web address, look and functionality is coming sooner than later.

Meantime, emergency responders are seeing the benefits of such integration. Police and Fire personnel, responding to calls, are able to see on their rugged laptops pictures from the real estate appraisal to make house identification more efficient. Special locations with safety issues such as Fairfield University’s propane storage tanks are identified on maps as well.

Leslie takes pride in his work to date and is happy with some of the video links recently added to provide coverage to department heads. One such camera now tracks activity at the Jennings Beach Skate Park so Parks and Recreation Department staff and police officers can keep tabs on activity without sending someone to the site.

Leslie is also one of Fairfield’s representatives on the Cable Advisory Council Area 2 and is keeping an eye on several bills before the state's General Assembly. One would bring more equitable cable fees to FairTV to increase coverage of town meetings and activities, while the other would more efficiently control wiring on telephone utility poles.

Personally, I urge everyone to support the two bills HB6460 (Cable) and DPUC Docket 11-03-07 (Telephone Poles.)

It's arcane stuff to some, fascinating to others, but as the town continues to lurch into the 21st century, the lifeblood of the town can now be measured in bits and bytes. There’s plenty of work to do - and plenty of innovation yet to come.

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