The only place in San Francisco still pricing real estate like it’s the 1980s is the city assessor’s office. Its property tax system dates back to the dawn of the floppy disk. City employees appraising the market work with software that runs on a dead programming language and can’t be used with a mouse. Assessors are prone to make mistakes when using the vintage software because it can’t display all the basic information for a given property on one screen. For local officials throughout the country, the shift from old-school servers to rented cloud storage has made it tougher than ever to fund upgrades. They can budget physical equipment as capital expenses, meaning they could issue bonds to pay for them. But cloud computing is a service, as the people selling it love to say, which means officials have to pay for it with operating funds—the same pool of money that goes toward addressing more tangible demands, such as parks and cops
Of course, improvements cost money that constituents don’t always want to pay. “We’re dealing with an irrational public who wants greater and greater service delivery at the same time they want their taxes to be lower,” says Alan Shark, executive director of the Public Technology Institute, an association for municipal tech officials.
In San Francisco the assessor uses a Cobol-based system called AS-400, whose welcome screen reads, “COPYRIGHT IBM CORP., 1980, 2009.” As the city tax rolls jumped 22 percent over two years, workers were struggling to keep track of the changes on their ancient systems. At one point they fell three years behind. It’s a “lot of manual work” just to perform basic functions, Chu says.