Even the most careful local government budget crunchers have to scratch their heads when it comes to the line marked "information technology" -- also known as computer and telecommunications systems.
How do you manage costs when every year ushers in new state-of-the-art technology, making current networks and equipment outmoded and within a few years practically unusable?
As local government officials begin to sharpen their pencils for 2013 budgets, they must take into account the tug-of-war between keeping up with high-tech advances and the bottom line.
In Anoka County, commissioners have created an IT fund to save for big-ticket technology projects when they're needed.
"You don't want to necessarily have to borrow to pay for something obsolete before you're done paying for it," County Board Chair Rhonda Sivarajah said.
And in Hennepin County, where commissioners are looking at a potential 10 percent increase in next year's IT budget, officials try to extend hardware life as much as they can without having it interrupt citizen services.
That means using hardware for four years and monitors for five, when the typical industry lifespan is three.
"We really have to constantly monitor and evaluate and balance technology against cost, the budget and our strategic direction," said Judy Regenscheid, Hennepin County's chief information officer.
The philosophy, she said, is to be "leading edge, not bleeding edge." That means keeping pace with high-tech advances without automatically switching to new equipment that tends to be more expensive while the bugs are still being worked out.
Hennepin's preliminary IT budget for 2013 is $9.2 million, up from $8.4 million this year. Some of that stems from the fact that the county is centralizing its IT work rather than spreading it among various departments.
One way Hennepin is saving money is moving to multi-functional devices that copy, print and fax all in one, Regenscheid said.
Anoka County, which reduced this year's property levy by 5.2 percent -- the biggest cut among metro area counties -- is looking at an IT operating budget next year close to this year's $3.1 million. The proposed IT capital budget is $3.2 million, compared with $2 million this year.
Susan Vreeland, Anoka's information technology director, said the proposed capital budget is driven by new voting equipment, a new public health information system to meet federal standards and an upgrade to the county's website.
The county also looks to continue its imaging project to replace paper documents with computer files. "It has changed the way we do business" in the county's Human Services department, Vreeland said.
Changing out equipment is inevitable, if only because vendors eventually drop product support for older models as they move on to the latest thing. As software demands change, so, too, must the hardware that runs it, Regenscheid said.
Sivarajah said it shouldn't be forgotten that embracing technology, even when it comes with a big price tag, can also be a way of cutting costs if it streamlines the way that work is done.
"We are never going to keep up with the latest and greatest technology," she said. "But we do want to make sure we're maximizing the potential for cost savings and using technology to do that."
Kevin Duchschere • 612-673-4455