It was supposed to be the perfect way to catch deadbeat parents: A computer network would allow Massachusetts state workers to sift through a variety of agency databases, track down guilty parties and make them pay owed child support.
But the automated Commonwealth of Massachusetts Enforcement Tracking System, or COMETS, is now more than 18 months behind its original schedule and about $5 million over original budget forecasts. Massachusetts officials say both they and the prime contractor, Bethesda, Md.-based Lockheed Martin Corp., intend to complete the $13.2 million project in time to meet a revised October 1997 deadline, but it won't be easy.
"It's stressful,'' said Fred Laskey, senior deputy commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Revenue. "It's a grind and we're working hard on reaching the deadline. ... We're employing lots of resources and so is Lockheed Martin. But we're either going to meet this deadline or we're going to come damn close. It's a lot like making sausage. It's very, very ugly.''
The problems resemble those seen in California, where a long-awaited child support collection system, also being developed by Lockheed Martin, is in danger of being junked. Although they say there are similarities, Massachusetts officials indicate that their troubles are nowhere near as alarming as those seen in California.
Lockheed Martin officials say both systems grew increasingly more complex as the projects evolved. In California, for example, the lines of code that needed to support the system nearly doubled to 1.5 million.
"The level of sophistication just grew and grew,'' said Ron Jury, a spokesman for Lockheed Martin. "In addition, counties in California have their own needs as well. ... The needs kept changing and they have to be met.''
Jury noted that Lockheed Martin's child support system in Los Angeles County enabled officials there to report a record annual $195 million in collections after the program was launched in spring 1995.
The problems that Massachusetts and California face are far from unique. With federal policy mandating that states launch child support tracking systems no later than Oct. 1, an estimated 42 states are in considerable risk of not making the deadline, said California Chief Information Officer John Thomas Flynn, who also is a vice president on the executive committee of the National Association of State Information Resource Executives.
Among the at-risk states are some of the nation's largest: Florida, Texas and Michigan.
In California, officials have avoided pointing fingers at Lockheed Martin, indicating that there's a lot of blame to spread among federal, state and company officials. As they worked to get the Statewide Automated Child Support System off the ground for the last six years, complications have resulted as state and federal lawmakers have passed hundreds of child support-related bills.
A frustrating federal requirement dictated that states use software from existing state systems for the projects. But California found that adapting software from programs in Maine and New Hampshire to its proposed system was difficult.
Coupled with a caseload now at 2.5 million - an 80 percent increase since the early 1990s - the project has met with significant troubles in at least half of the 22 counties where it's been launched, Flynn said. Awarded in 1991 to Lockheed Martin, the project is about $30 million over the original budget estimate.
"The system went from being the salvation to being the problem,'' said Jim Mayer, project manager for the Little Hoover Commission, a state-appointed, volunteer watchdog group that reviews California government spending. "There were a number of counties where the child support collections have gone significantly down instead of up.''
The Massachusetts contract, awarded to Lockheed Martin in October 1992, was expected to revolutionize the laborious tradition of case workers scouring endless paperwork to go after deadbeats. There are 230,000 child support cases statewide, with parents owing money often hopping from one residence to another, finding and losing jobs along the way. Massachusetts officials thought that a sophisticated, computer tracking system would help get a handle on the problem.
With banking, employment and motor vehicle records reported to the state, Massachusetts officials were convinced that COMETS would catch parents who avoided child support payments even if they were transient. They envisioned that the system would eventually be able to track down violators through a link to driver's license records across the country.
Lockheed Martin is providing the software, service, programming and technical support to get the system going. But the project's massive scope along with technical complications have befuddled both Lockheed Martin and state staff members, officials involved with COMETS say. What were anticipated to be simple tasks - such as ordering the printing of documents from a central location - snowballed and created major headaches, state officials said.
"There are regulations after regulation after regulation that you have to build in,'' said Jerry Fay, deputy commissioner for child support enforcement in Massachusetts. "You have to do this report after that report after another report. All of this adds up. Also, we in Massachusetts wanted to build a system that was very different from what everyone else had. All of this added up to make a much more complex system than we could ever have thought.''
Lockheed Martin also is launching similar systems in Pennsylvania and Hawaii, although neither project has encountered significant delays or cost overruns.
Pennsylvania officials plan to pilot the $78 million Pennsylvania Child Support Enforcement System, or PACSES, in August. The state of Hawaii awarded a child support collection system contract to Lockheed Martin in December 1996.
Although some routine frustrations have surfaced, there have been no major cost overruns with the Hawaii project, said Edward Yonemoto, project manager of the system. The system, which is called Keiki, or Hawaiian for "children,'' is budgeted at $18 million.
"We're moving along with our new schedule and we think it's reachable,'' Yonemoto said.