Online Mooring System Cut Loose

By: Tim Wood

Topics: Waterways

Chatham has abandoned its problematic online mooring and waiting list renewal system. FILE PHOTO

CHATHAM – The town's problematic online mooring permit renewal system is being scrapped.

Instituted more than three years ago, the system had low use by mooring permit holders as well as technical issues that did not produce the functionality or savings in staff time that were anticipated, said Director of Natural Resources Robert Duncanson.

“We just didn't see the efficiency we thought we would,” he said.

Officials are looking at streamlining the town's mooring regulations, the complexity of which was one reason it was difficult to get off-the-shelf software to function properly, Duncanson said. Once the regulations are “cleaned up,” the town will seek proposals for a new computerized mooring system, he said.

In the meantime, mooring holders and those on mooring waiting lists will be renewing their permits the old fashioned way this year, using paper forms.

Notice that the online mooring management system was being cut loose was sent to permit holders and those on the waiting list with their renewal notices late last month. Renewals are due at the end of December, according to Harbormaster Stuart Smith.

Waterways advisory committee chairman Peter Taylor was a critic of the online mooring renewal system and was happy to see it go.

“I'm glad it's over with,” he said. “We're understaffed at the harbormaster's office. All this did was put an unbelievable burden on the harbormaster's office.”

The digital mooring renewal system has been glitchy since it was first implemented as part of a Cape Cod Commission pilot e-permitting program. PeopleForms, an online data management system, had difficulty adapting to the town's mooring system, which includes several thousand moorings in multiple mooring fields, each with its own specific criteria. While the software worked well with other types of town permits – Duncanson pointed to the health department and sewer permits, which have been available online for three years using the system – it didn't fare as well with the mooring system.

Goals of the computerized mooring renewal system included making the process more user friendly; making it easier for seasonal residents to renew; avoiding lost or delayed mailed renewals; provide the ability to pay by credit card and upload required documents; and reduce the paperwork burden on town staff.

While moorings could be renewed online, staff was still spending time reconciling issues that the software had problems handling, negating any efficiencies. Duncanson said there were also problems with third-party credit card vendors, with web browser compatibility, uploading documents and other functions.

“There were all these side issues as well” which took time and effort to address.

Only 16 percent of mooring permit holders and 18 percent of those on waiting lists used the online system to renew last year, according to the harbormaster's office.

The town spent tens of thousands of dollars working with the vendor to try to make the software work as envisioned. In the end, it was decided that without the anticipated efficiencies, it was not worth continuing with the system.

“Sometimes one size or one product does not fit everything,” Duncanson said. He noted that the initial project was funded through a grant and overseen by the Cape Cod Commission as a pilot project.

“Sometimes they just don't work out the way you thought when you first entered into something,” he said.

Taylor faulted the town's information technology department; waterways committee members and Smith pointed out early in the process that the system was not working. “We were told it would be straightened out,” he said. “We were just lied to about that.” IT Director Craig Rowe directed a request for comments to Duncanson.

Taylor said he has not been able to get a figure on how much the town spent on the online mooring system and he isn't confident the people responsible can come up with a program that works.

“This was not designed for our system,” which he said is further complicated by both commercial and recreation boat categories. “We have a complicated system.” A disagreement about the online mooring renewal system three years ago led to Smith being placed on administrative leave over allegations of insubordination, he added.

Simplification is the goal of a comprehensive review of mooring regulations, Duncanson said, which will make developing a digital mooring renewal process easier as well as making the regulations more understandable by the public. Officials were already reviewing mooring regulations after a recent controversy over the assignment of moorings to third-party users.

The town remains committed to an online mooring management system. Duncanson said off-the-shelf mooring management software exists, but most are targeted at marinas and boatyards. Staff will look at everything that's available, and once the mooring regulation review is completed, will put out a request for proposals to software vendors for a system that suits Chatham's needs. Ultimately that may involve creating a program from scratch, he said.