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Building Innovation is a collection of stories by 90.5 fm WESA reporters about the Pittsburgh region focusing on efficient government operation, infrastructure and transportation, innovative practices, energy and environment and neighborhoods and community.

Pittsburgh’s $300,000 Records Storage Fund Overdue for Modernization

Flickr user Mary Helen Cochran Library
Remember this? A student at Sweet Briar College in Virginia uses a microfilm reader in 1982.

The Pittsburgh Department of Permits, Licenses, and Inspections has a nice little chunk of change—a bit more than $300,000—set aside for storage of records.

But the catch is the work must be done on microfilm.

The Microfilm Permit Plans Trust Fund was set up in 1986 with strict parameters about how the money could be spent, and nearly thirty years later, the city has finally decided it’s time to broaden those parameters.

“Microfilm was a great technology for storing records in 1986, but it’s no longer the best technology now,” said Maura Kennedy, Director of PLI. “The big goal of this is to keep up with technological changes for record storage as they evolve. Store them digitally and also invest in some better hardware and perhaps some software management tools.”

Kennedy came before City Council to advocate for a bill that would change the name of the trust fund to the Storage, Technology, and Operations Trust Fund and would add language permitting expenditures “relating to the technological storage of records; software, hardware, or automated reporting; staff training, uniforms, building maintenance, equipment, and/or supplies.”

Kennedy said the money comes from PLI fees, not from taxes, and that opening up the permitted uses of the fund would help with the department’s budgeting process and planned technology upgrades.

“I wanted to keep it broad so we could do hardware and software, so eventually our inspectors could get iPads and things like that paid for out of this trust fund,” Kennedy said.

Amid laughter from his colleagues, Councilman Dan Gilman inquired as to how recently the department was using microfilm for storage. Kennedy said she couldn’t say specifically, “but it was in the relatively recent past.”

Gilman was incredulous that the city was even still keeping records on microfilm, and on CD-ROM as Kennedy later added, and offered to help identify funding sources for further technology upgrades.

“I appreciate your commitment to modernizing, and … if we need to look at the budget to make a change for next year to help get away from (microfilm) and into digital records for PLI, I would be happy to work with you on finding the dollars to do that,” Gilman said.

Council gave preliminary approval to the bill on Wednesday and will take a final vote this week.