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County wraps up Y2K bug repairs

Four years ago, it looked like a daunting task: Fix all of Pasco County's 15,000 computer programs so that they will continue functioning at the turn of the millennium.

But Bill Compton, Pasco County's information systems director, says the last line of computer code was tweaked about two weeks ago, more than a year before the start of the 2000 and a possible technological crisis.

"It's all done," Compton said. "Everything has already been tested and implemented."

The Year 2000 computer bug, often known as the Y2K problem, posed serious risks to the county. Computers are responsible for tasks ranging from calculating tax bills to keeping track of when accused murderers are scheduled for trial.

Had Compton's staff failed _ or if they've missed a spot here and there _ consequences could range from a blank screen in the utility billing office to a thirsty Jan. 1 next year because of a crash in the county's water system.

Indeed, computer chaos could be so widespread that the American Red Cross recommends stocking disaster supplies in advance of the millennium and is advising people to be prepared to relocate to shelters if utility systems fail.

Some companies and government agencies have spent millions of dollars weeding out errant lines of computer code that could cause disaster in the first seconds of the year 2000.

"It's making consultants rich," Compton said.

But the county managed to repair each piece of its software and then test for bugs without increasing its computer department budget, Compton said.

The Y2K bug isn't a computer virus. Rather, it is the result of a money-saving approach adopted by programers decades ago, when the new millennium wasn't on the horizon.

Because data storage was so expensive at the dawn of the computer age, programers wrote software that translated dates into a month, day, and two-digit year (12/31/99).

That allowed them to save the hard-drive space that otherwise would have been occupied by dates with four-digit years.

But when the millennium comes, some computers and software functioning with the two-digit date arrangement will not operate. For example, some court system computers that have not been reprogrammed for Y2K won't allow clerks to enter trial dates after Dec. 31, 1999.

Others will mistakenly assume that it is the year 1900 and insert math errors into calculations involving dates.

Computers that calculate how much time a prison inmate has served, for example, subtract one date from another.

In that scenario, someone who was imprisoned today would show up on Jan. 1, 2000, as having served -99 years in prison. If the computer were programmed to compare the time served to the prisoner's sentence and flag those inmates due for release, some of them would be in for a long wait.

Compton said Pasco avoided most expenses associated with the Y2K problem by waiting, rather than rushing into action.

IBM was due to release a Y2K-compliant operating system in 1996, and the county held off on fixing software in favor of buying new.

After that, Compton said, technicians ran software that peeked into each of the county's computer programs and sniffed out lines of code containing two-digit dates.

Staffers then re-coded those lines to operate with four digits instead.

That process began three years ago, Compton said.

"We just started writing code," he said. "And it's taken us this long to do it."

_ Staff writer Geoff Dougherty covers courts in west Pasco. He can be reached at 869-6247 or (800) 333-7505, ext. 6247. His e-mail address is geoffsptimes.com.

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