Baker County embraces e-government

January 04, 2002 12:00 am
Bill Lee keeps track of plans, at left, that hell use to help upgrade technology at the Baker County Courthouse.  (Baker City Herald photograph by S. John Collins).
Bill Lee keeps track of plans, at left, that hell use to help upgrade technology at the Baker County Courthouse. (Baker City Herald photograph by S. John Collins).

By MIKE FERGUSON

Of the Baker City Herald

The official website of local county government, bakercounty.org, is full of fascinating and helpful facts, from how one can communicate with the tax collector to which ages your kids are due their immunizations.

But at two years old, the sites getting up there in age, says Bill Lee, the countys technology coordinator. Like the guy who grimaces at the tiniest ding in his once-shiny new automobile, Lee has been checking out the new models on the showroom floor.

Hes in the market for a brand new, souped-up version of the county website, but rather than purchase it at the local dealer, hes building a version of it himself, and hes doing it from what might be called his own garage a room in the basement of the County Courthouse, which doubles as his office.

The grand unveiling

If everything goes as scheduled, the new model will be unveiled sometime next week. The goal, Lee says, it to carry e-government to the logical next step.

That term e-government refers to bringing functions of government from forms to fill out to laws that must be obeyed to the desktops of computers of everyday citizens.

Rather than braving the snow to trudge to the Courthouse office of County Clerk Tami Green, for example, county residents can, from their own home computer, look at the deed of any property in the county, or check out election results from anytime in county history.

Or, if theyre so inclined, they can look at Assessor Allen Phillips page, which will show them the structural improvements completed on any property in the county.

They can scan the countys zoning ordinances simply by plugging in a keyword. If they want to know about mobile homes, for example, a searchable function allows them to zero in on only that part of the code that applies.

One day theyll be able to pay their traffic tickets on-line to Justice Court.

Or people who really have time on their hands can scour the financial reports that county department heads submit to administrative officer Patrick Smith each month. From home, people can see for themselves how closely each department is sticking to its budget.

In a sense, it will be as if every county department head has 16,000 new bosses, Lee said.

Everybody Ive talked to seems okay with this, Lee said. Its all public information, but governments dont commonly provide it in this way. A vendor I work with in Chicago told me that we may be the only government in America thats attempting something like this.

Itll be a little like those television game shows with an interactive component that allows people to play along from their living room.

Its the cutting edge of technology being applied in a rural corner of Oregon. And its all coming about because of one guy holed up in his tiny office in the Courthouse basement.

From accountant to Web guru

When Lee was hired three years ago, he came to Baker County as an accountant, not an Information Services guru. But with a bachelors degree in engineering and a penchant for working very long days he was soon placed in charge of everything from computer acquisition to systems design to phone system decision-making.

Its taken a little time, but people in high places have taken notice of Lees innovations. IBMs website has a case study of how the county Parole and Probation department quickly located an offender because of an anonymous tip provided by a resident whod seen an all points bulletin posted on the countys website. Big Blue also paid tribute to a voter signature-verification system Lee installed in Greens computer system.

As the technology develops, departments within county government are learning how they can apply improvements made by other departments to their work.

The Assessors office, for example, received a $40,000 grant to digitize all their maps using a technology called Global Information Systems. The new maps, still in development, are highly detailed and yield a wide variety of data with just a few keystrokes.

Both the Planning and the County Weed departments have figured out ways to use the new maps to make their own work more precise and efficient, Lee said.

Planners use the new maps, for example, to digitally draw a circle around a proposed land-use change. A computer spits out the names and addresses of all affected landowners, and even prints out the mailing labels.

A one-man department

Early on in his tenure, Lee said, he realized that if the countys on-line services were going to be user-friendly, hed have to be the one to make it happen.

Most small counties dont have Information Technology departments, he said. And programmers cost at least $75 an hour. I guess the only downside is Im stretched a little thin.

But his work is paying off. The County Health Department, for example, no longer has to crunch its grant-reporting numbers on a calculator. Lee wrote public health officials a program that automates what used to be a time-consuming process.

A lot of our programs are federally funded, and all of them require time studies and quarterly reports, said Health Department office manager Sandy Cross. When Bills done with our new program, it will save me many, many hours. Hes been such an asset to our county. Im very pleased with his accomplishments.

Time not spent filling out forms allows nurses and office staff to do what they do best: provide health care to county residents.

Youd be amazed how much number-crunching the health department does, Lee said. Theyre like a lot of other departments in the county. Theyre understaffed, and the more direct service they can provide, the better.

Lee takes his one-man operation seriously, but even a lone ranger needs a little feedback once in a while. When it came time to take the wraps off his new website, Lee invited family members, county employees, and selected vendors to take a test drive.

The consensus?

I think people liked it, he said. But I wasnt about to contract out for any feedback. It was all done internally, and all given for free.