The computer workers were quitting their jobs in a seemingly endless stream.
Lured by higher wages offered by private companies and the ability to get dot-com company stock options, talented programmers moved from their positions with Baltimore County government four years ago to the more than 2,000 private sector openings in the Baltimore-Washington area.
"I remember every good employee we lost," said Thomas G. Iler, director of the county's Office of Information Technology. "The ones that got away just break your heart."
To stem the exodus, Iler and the county developed a new pay scale, creating higher starting salaries for computer workers and broadening their opportunities for advancement. The department then went on a recruiting drive of its own, wooing people away from companies such as T. Rowe Price, Black & Decker and Raytheon.
"I'm proud of the fact that we have stolen from the best," Iler said, smiling.
Praise for efforts
The turnaround gained the county high praise in a national report card on government efficiency. The review, released last week by the Maxwell School at Syracuse University and Governing magazine, studied the nation's 40 largest counties, giving Baltimore County the third-highest grade with a B+.
Within the five areas studied, the county's Office of Information and Technology gained an A-, tied with the highest mark given to the county. The county's financial management office received a similar score.
For Iler, the recognition was the achievement of a goal. Four years ago, he took over the office, aiming to make it the best in the nation.
Ask Iler, 34, who deserves the recognition for the achievement and he points to the administration of County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, who made technology a priority. Iler also praises his work force of 140 employees, who mainly toil in the honeycomb-like basement offices of the old County Courthouse, trying to create new systems to make citizen interaction with government as simple as possible.
Ask frontline workers and administrators who deserves acknowledgement and they will point to Iler, an energetic leader with a laser-like focus on one goal: customer service.
"He's been able to energize the staff and attract new people," said John M. Wasilisin, county administrative officer. "Under Tom's leadership, we've come a long way to bringing the county closer to where we need to be in the information technology field."
Iler took a roundabout path to become lord of the county computers. The youngest of six children of a dentist and a homemaker, he grew up in the suburbs of St. Petersburg, Fla.
He graduated from Loyola College with an economics degree and then attended the University of Baltimore, where he earned a master's degree in business administration. All the while, he learned computers on his own by taking various seminars.
The upbeat, gray goatee-wearing Iler lists spending time with his wife, Maureen, and raising his two sons, Chris, 5, and Jack, 3, as his chief activities outside the office.
After six years as a researcher and economist in the county's Office of Economic Development, Iler was tapped by Ruppersberger in 1998 to take over the county's computer operation.
Since then, he has tried to make the office an incubator of innovation, he said.
Through his department's work, people can now pay parking tickets and their taxes over the phone. Parking tickets can be paid with a credit card on the county Web site, www.co.ba.md.us.
The agency is now working on a project that will computerize the schedules of county firefighters. If a firefighter calls in sick, a computer would automatically dial the next firefighter available.
"No human interaction," Iler said. "No battalion chief has to worry about staffing at that station."
'The coolness factor'
The opportunity to work on such projects is what Iler calls "the coolness factor." Creating new systems for 20 county agencies is challenging to employees, he said.
"We get to serve 20 different corporations, which means we get to integrate different technologies, which to a lot of our people is cool," Iler said.
Those people include Mike Corcoran and Rob O'Connor. The two 31-year-olds say "the coolness factor" keeps them in their job.
"We basically control what takes place in the county," O'Connor said. "We get to play with the old and the new."
Iler acknowledges that he and his staff have been shameless in recruiting such new tech help. He lured his physical therapist to join the department. Another employee out jogging at lunch was hit by a car and recruited someone from the emergency room.
Iler recruited Lynne White from a similar computer job with Rite Aid.
"He was a good salesperson," said White, 44, of Towson. "And there is a lot of opportunity to have an impact on the area I live in."
One of the greatest hurdles facing government computer operations is getting different agencies working within the same systems, according to the national report. Iler has created the 26-member Information Technology Advisory Committee, which includes representatives from each of the county's 20 agencies and meets monthly.
Dale T. Johnson sits on the committee representing Environmental Protection and Resource Management.
"When I go to a meeting and see more technology, as soon as that becomes available I can jump in," Johnson said.
When Iler took over the office in 1998, he wrote as its mission statement to make Baltimore County a national leader in using computers to improve county services.
"I may have set our goals too low," Iler said after seeing the department's national score. "We may have to write a new mission statement."