BY MICHAEL HAWTHORNE
Enquirer Columbus Bureau
COLUMBUS -- Many social services could be interrupted or delayed because most of Ohio's local governments are woefully behind in upgrading their computers for the year 2000, state Auditor Jim Petro said Tuesday.
Testifying before an Ohio Senate committee, Mr. Petro painted a chaotic scenario that could unfold 13 months from now: Welfare or unemployment recipients could find their benefits delayed. Emergency 911 networks could be interrupted. Traffic control, utilities, tax assessments and other government services could be disrupted.
While state agencies and major counties have started to fix the glitch, 80 percent of school districts and cities responding to a recent survey by Mr. Petro's office reported little progress in addressing the so-called Y2K problem.
Moreover, he said, many that have started to fix their computers aren't leaving enough time for tests to ensure they work properly.
"There is a need for local governments to take this more seriously," Mr. Petro told the Senate Economic Development, Technology and Aerospace Committee. "Some people might think there will be a
software program that will fix everything, but it's not that easy."
Businesses and governments across the world face the Y2K problem because early computer programmers often used a two-digit format to express the year. As a result, many computers on Jan. 1, 2000, will read 2000 as 1900 and could produce inaccurate information or shut down.
Nobody is sure how much it will cost to fix the problem in Ohio, but the state government alone is spending $61 million this year to upgrade its computers, Mr. Petro said.
"We're almost in a panic stage about getting this done," said state Sen. Janet Howard, R-Forest Park. "I'm wondering if local governments will have to choose between hiring a new police officer or to fix their computers."
About 70 percent of local governments didn't respond to the auditor's survey, but Mr. Petro said the responses he received suggest that many local officials have waited too long to address the problem.
Counties could face the brunt of the consequences, he said, since they administer benefit programs such as welfare, food stamps and Medicaid.
In state audits released earlier this year, 35 of the state's 88 counties were cited for failing to plan for the Y2K problem. Hamilton County and other urban counties with large populations of welfare recipients reported more progress than others.
Even if the state's computers are ready, some officials fear that electronic links to counties that aren't could jeopardize entire computer networks. That could make it difficult to determine the eligibility of new applicants and delay payments for people already on the rolls.
A recent report by the U.S. General Accounting Office -- Congress' investigative arm -- said problems could begin as soon as next month in programs such as unemployment insurance. Since applications for jobless benefits include the
last day of the year in which benefits are paid, those filed on or after Jan. 1 would include the corresponding date in 2000.
"Our people tell us we're OK," said Butler County Commissioner Mike Fox. "But if something goes wrong, we're going to have a lot of people blaming each other."
Clermont and Warren counties have been working for the past 11Ž2 years on the Y2K problem. Vendors that operate Clermont's major computer systems plan to test the networks early next year, said Steve Rabolt, the county's director of information services.
"We've got time to fix them again if there are any problems," Mr. Rabolt said.
David Krings, Hamilton County administrator, said the county has hired a part-time computer expert to help deal with Y2K problems. He said most of the computer systems have already been upgraded, so the arrival of 2000 will not be a problem.
He said the county is also checking on potential noncomputer problems, such as microchips in thermostats and traffic lights.
Hamilton County does seem to be ahead of the curve in dealing with these problems. Roger Silbersack, Hamilton County's chief deputy auditor, said his department has been planning for Y2K problems for several years and is prepared.
"Some of us are not coming to this late," he said.
Outside vendors could pose other problems that Mr. Petro's survey did not measure.
For instance, thousands of electronic claims from doctors, hospitals and other health care providers are processed by the state's Medicaid program. Payments could be delayed if providers don't upgrade their own computers to be ready for 2000.
B.G. Gregg contributed to this report.