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Debugging 2000 may cost Utah dearly

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Not too long ago, officials in a Utah town were testing the electronic innards of their water purification system for year 2000 problems. As they turned an internal clock past "1999," a large dose of chemicals dumped into the water.

"I could have killed the entire town," said David Fletcher, Utah's year 2000 program manager.The price tag to fix such potential problems created by the year 2000 bug for local and state government is still a big question mark, the state's Information

Technology Commission was told Monday.

So-called "embedded" programs may be potentially one of the largest problems for state and local officials as they try to check internal programs which run everything from alarm systems to voice mail systems to traffic signal switches to automatic thermostats in government buildings.

A rough estimate to fix embedded systems alone could run near $1.5 million, Fletcher said.

When the year 2000 comes, the " '00" will be interpreted by computers as 1900, not 2000. That will make computers crash or miscalculate. Experts say that threatens electrical power, water utilities, airline and railroad traffic, telecommunications and international finance - all controlled by computers.

Representatives of the State Office of Education and Higher Education testified about their efforts to get critical electronic and computer systems debugged, but what interested some commission members most was how much should the Legislature be prepared to spend to fix problems.

Answers from Utah's Higher Education system, for example, raised concerns for Rep. Marty Stephens, R-Farr West. Stephens is a member of the Information Technology Commission and co-chairman of the executive appropriations committee.

Fred Hunsaker, associate commissioner of higher education, told the commission that higher education had focused on fixing "critical mission" systems, but may need $750,000 just to inventory other systems to see what needs fixing.

Stephens said that the state's colleges and universities should find resources to begin now to find out where problems exist and not wait until the 1999 legislative session to ask for an appropriation to start looking for problems.

"You might look a little foolish coming to the Legislature in January or February asking for money to study this," Stephens told Hunsaker. Under such a timeline, problems could only be fixed in a few months before Dec. 31, 1999.

"We realize we're burning on a short fuse," Hunsaker said.

Hunsaker lamented the fact that, along with trying to identify and fix millenium bug problems, information technology specialists at some schools have been preoccupied with another deadline - changing systems to meet the needs of a quarter-to-semester change that will begin in the fall.

David C. Moon, Utah's Chief Information Officer, said his office will be preparing funding proposals for state agencies and will also be asking for a contingency fund to help "put out fires" when the millenial clock ticks by.

Rep. Blake Chard, R-Layton, said the Monday discussion wouldn't be the last as the commission seeks to find ways to help the Legislature grapple with the problem.

Currently, the state is trying to get all local and state agencies to designate a year 2000 expert and are tracking efforts on the state's Year 2000 website at (http://-y2k.state.ut.us).