Listening to Denver city officials, residents might be tempted to conclude that the missteps and delays plaguing Denver International Airport are rare blips on the clear screen that is city government. As any city hall veteran can confirm, however, DIA's holding pattern is unique only in its scale.

Consider the city's latest attempt to rewrite ("reclassify," in bureaucratese) its employee job descriptions. The subject sounds arcane--and actually, it is--but it's important, too. The process determines what each of Denver's civil servants will get paid. Rewriting job titles also is necessary in order for the city to comply with federal labor mandates.

In theory, reclassification is simple: Write a job description and match it to an appropriate wage. But the details can be sticky. In fact, the city's Job Analysis-Job Evaluation project has a strikingly familiar flight pattern.

"Denver Voters Say `Yes' to New Airport"--Associated Press, May 17, 1989.

The city's director of personnel, Fred Timmerman, says Denver decided to begin a new job-reclassification project about two and a half years ago as a result of a study that determined the city's job descriptions were too generic.

"We had such broad specs that you could be doing a completely different job than someone with the same classification," he explains. For instance, even though they share the same job title, "specialty clerks" in the motor vehicles division perform far different duties than specialty clerks at, say, Denver General Hospital.

In addition, the city hoped to re-evaluate its pay grades. Until now, it has operated under a rule of thumb that says supervisors should be at least two pay grades higher than the workers they supervise. Timmerman says it was time to see if that matched up with the real world.

Finally, the city wanted to make sure it was complying with various federal laws, particularly the Americans With Disabilities Act, which outlaws discrimination against handicapped workers, and the Fair Labor Standards Act, which, among other things, determines who can earn overtime pay.

So in March 1993 the city hired the Wyatt Company as a consultant on the reclassification system. The contract was for $79,000. Timmerman anticipated the project would be complete by spring 1993.

"Denver aviation director George Doughty abruptly resigned yesterday from overseeing construction of the nation's largest airport...A spokesman said Mayor Wellington Webb has named Deputy Mayor Bill Smith to manage completion of the $3 billion new Denver International Airport."-- The Bond Buyer, May 27, 1992.

"Bill Smith...was stricken with brain cancer. He died in October 1992."--Rocky Mountain News, May 8, 1994.

One of the reasons Wyatt was selected to consult on the project was that, although the company was based in Atlanta, it had a Denver office. Wyatt's local manager on Denver's JA-JE project was a woman named Sue Boline.

Only months into the project, however, Boline resigned from the project, broke off from Wyatt and formed her own company. Wyatt quickly assigned another specialist from its Atlanta office to the job. For the city, that meant less personal attention. Instead of a local representative from Wyatt dropping by the personnel office two or three times a week to check up on things, Timmerman recalls seeing the Atlanta-based rep only once during the following year.

Despite Wyatt's contract, city workers planned on completing much of the JA-JE work themselves. Indeed, after Boline left, much of the project fell to the city's own compensation analyst, John Bodhane.

The good news was that Bodhane was skilled at his job. The bad news was that he was so skilled that Boline quickly hired him to work at her new company.

"Construction [at DIA] fell behind schedule and costs escalated as the airlines and other tenants added facilities."--Rocky Mountain News, May 8, 1994.

The Americans With Disabilities Act requires that city jobs be reclassified so that future employees won't be discriminated against. The new descriptions must be specific enough to prevent city officials from assigning a disabled person to a task he can't accomplish and to make sure someone with a handicap isn't prevented from working in a job he can do.

Not surprisingly, there are a large number of small differences in the work done by the city's 8,000 employees--an unexpectedly large number, it turns out. As their work on the JA-JE project progressed, analysts found that their estimates of how many new job classifications they'd need were drastically short of the mark.

Timmerman says he originally anticipated classifying anywhere from 335 to 800 city jobs. As of early this month, however, the number has swelled to 1,047, and it continues to grow. "Data entry, duplicating and mailing details of the JA-JE project were initially overlooked and further delayed the implementation," he wrote in a recent issue of Spotlight, the Career Service Authority newsletter.

"When BAE tested the baggage system at a mockup at Dallas's international airport last year, it ate the luggage, an incident witnessed by numerous airline representatives from Denver."--Innerline, the independent industry newspaper published at Stapleton International Airport.

Timmerman says one of the primary reasons Wyatt was hired as a consultant was the firm's experience with computer systems. "They are people who have a high degree of expertise," he says.

In the fall of 1993 Wyatt delivered the customized computer software program it had written for the city. "Unfortunately," Timmerman wrote in the September Spotlight, "this super software fell into our computer system and crashed, as we discovered that the software was not `network' compatible."

What that meant in practical terms was that each of the six individual analysts at Career Services needed separate programs for their computers. So Wyatt agreed to create six software packages, one for each analyst's workstation.

It didn't take long for the analysts to discover that their computers didn't have the memory capacity to handle the new software. This became evident when the computers began handling the data the way BAE treats baggage. Timmerman says information was being eaten as quickly as it was being entered.

Wyatt went back to the drawing board and updated its software. The city bought six new computers. Timmerman says that he needed to buy the new machines anyway and that Wyatt's data-munching software just pushed up the purchase date.

"Denver International has postponed its inauguration four times since October, and no relief is in sight."--Newsweek, August 22, 1994.

Timmerman says he quickly abandoned his spring 1993 deadline for completing the JA-JE project. Next to go was the autumn 1993 projected completion date, which was exchanged for a summer 1994 estimate. That, too, has quietly passed.

A supervisor in the city auditor's office says the DIA-like delays have frazzled her workers, who naturally are interested in what their future salaries will be. "We've really been put through the wringer on this one," she says.

Last month, a determined Timmerman drew a line in the sand, setting December 16 as the absolute final deadline.

"And this one," he says, "we're going to meet.

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