Traverse City News and Events

Database Critical To County Budget Mysteriously Deleted

Oct. 26, 2016

A database key to Grand Traverse County’s 2017 budget was deleted earlier this month – setting the county’s budget process back several weeks and raising questions about IT security and possible internal sabotage.

County Administrator Tom Menzel says a large file of personnel data and costs – information that constitutes “the majority of the county’s total operating budget” – was deleted from the county’s system nearly four weeks ago. He called the loss a “critical setback in the budget preparation process.”

“We have been unable to determine whether this was a result of human error, or was a direct attempt to sabotage our system and budgeting process by a disgruntled employee,” Menzel emailed county commissioners Tuesday. “I am hopeful it was just a mistake, and that no one connected with the county would want to do something like that.”

Menzel called the missing database – and a lack of safeguards that could have either prevented its deletion or identified the user who deleted it – the result “of an organization that has not invested in its core technology.” Menzel added: “And now we are paying the price for it.”

A June audit of the county’s IT systems by consulting firm Trivalent Group warned of several “critical” security risks in the county’s technology programs – infrastructure also used by the city of Traverse City and Traverse City Light & Power. Flagged security risks included network devices that are “end of life,” software no longer supported by vendors, and vulnerable operating systems.

Menzel says AS-400 – the county’s 28-year-old DOS-based system on which the personnel database was stored – is particularly problematic. Only two individuals were trained in managing the “antiquated” system, according to Menzel, both of whom have left the county. They include a county programmer who quit two months ago, and IT Director Don Sheehan, who resigned in June.

The rest of the IT staff – many younger employees trained on modern software programs and systems who are unfamiliar with DOS – are “trying to assist (the investigation), but they’re being asked to do things they’ve never had to do before,” says Finance Director Jody Lundquist. IT, for example, has spent close to three weeks just trying to assemble a list of users who had access to the personnel data. “We don’t know if it’s five people or 25,” says Lundquist. “It’s been very difficult for IT to identify who even has access to (that information), so that we can limit that going forward.”

While auditing safeguards that can track users’ computer activities monitor many areas of the county's systems, administrators and IT staff so far have been unable to trace the user who deleted the personnel data, or to identify whether the act was intentional or accidental. Menzel says the county has only been able to verify that the deletion happened internally. “It’s such a mess,” says Menzel. “Our systems are so archaic. We spent decades not investing in our infrastructure…and now it’s reached a crisis point. We’re paying for those past sins.”

County administrators kept news of the deleted database quiet for almost a month. “We were trying to keep it quiet until we got a handle on who has access to the system,” Menzel emailed commissioners, “since until that is determined we are very vulnerable (to) another deletion of critical budgeting information.”

But the news was made public at Monday night’s city commission meeting, when County Chair Christine Maxbauer spoke during public comment. Responding to public criticism from political opponent Tom Mair about the county’s budgeting process, Maxabuer explained the deleted database was the reason for the delay in county budget hearings this fall.

“I wanted to let Mr. Mair and the public know that we are not delaying it because we’re looking at making cuts,” she said. “We are delaying it because we have no choice. Someone hit a delete key.”

With the information public, administrators say they will carefully monitor budgeting data going forward. Departments are “currently working on rebuilding the original tables and budget database, which is a time-consuming process but necessary,” says Menzel. Lundquist also notes the county’s systems are backed up on a revolving seven-day period, which staff will stay within going forward. When the personnel database was deleted, it hadn’t been backed up for eight days, putting it just outside the recovery window.

Administrators say it's too late in the process to create the budget on different or external software this year. “The time and work it would take to create a separate system (to process that information) for 500 employees…isn’t an option at this point,” says Lundquist. She notes AS-400 also doesn’t allow for producing Excel reports or exporting data outside of the system in an organized method. “It just dumps data,” says Lundquist. “It’s a clear example of how the county has failed to keep up with the times.”

The delay caused by the deleted file means county commissioners likely won’t see a draft budget until December. The county must approve a final version of the budget by December 31. One recommended budget item likely to be discussed for 2017: IT and technology upgrades.

“It’s definitely something we plan to talk about,” says Lundquist. “I brought this up when I came here in July…we need to find room in the budget to make these investments in what’s dire and necessary for IT upgrades.”

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