Sheriff's software system stalemated in 2-2 vote
Jun 15, 2012 (The Sampson Independent - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
The debate over a proposed $400,000 records management system upgrade within the Sheriff's Office continued during Sampson County Board of Commissioners budget deliberations this week, ending with a 2-2 deadlock vote that effectively stalemated a matter the sheriff has cited as a "critical need."
Sheriff's officials say an electronic system would act to meet growing mandates amid stretched manpower, antiquated resources and increasing demands. While commissioners have each said the records management system would prove effective for the Sheriff's Office, they have shared differing views on whether the proposed price tag was feasible.
The request was initially presented at the board's planning session in February and considered again in May before being tabled. A low bid by Southern Software, in the amount of $400,000, was recommended by the Sheriff's Office in previous meetings, however commissioners voted last month to solicit formal requests for proposals and present them during budget deliberations.
At Wednesday night's meeting, the board was presented with a familiar scenario.
"We had six vendors we sent the Records Management System request for proposal to. We had only one response," said David Clack, the county's finance officer. "Southern Software basically proposed the same price that Capt. (Eric) Pope went over with the board previously, the $277,055."
That price would cover software, installation and training. The Sheriff's Office additionally recommended the virtual private network software be purchased from Seamless at a total of $29,966. The total cost of the hardware -- servers from Dell Computers -- is another $76,546.09. Microsoft Office Professional Software for the department would be $24,918. All totaled, the cost would be $403,485.
Pope gave another rundown of the purpose of the program, the comprehensive role it would serve and the benefits to the department, just as he did at the previous meetings.
Sheriff's authorities have said increasing responsibility to provide timely and accurate public records upon request, investigator caseloads, increasing unfunded mandates from other government entities, limited physical storage space and the public's desire for government to provide better services with less capital prevents the issue from being deferred any longer.
Pope said the need for an electronic records management system has often gone unfunded in the past due to budgetary constraints, but it simply cannot be backburnered anymore. Currently, he said, there are three or four rooms filled with banker's boxes of stored files. With the conversion to electronic format, there is a recovery method in place to save from losing documentation of case files -- that does not exist now.
"We're trying to get a system that will allow us to have that database. It's a safety method that allows us to streamline things," said Pope. "It's much more than an incident and arrest report system. It goes into the multiple facets of Sheriff's Office operations."
Among the numerous mechanisms the system would offer, it would allow for better time management, Pope noted, with less time spent by detectives doing paperwork and preparing "discovery" items for court and more time working cases.
"How many employees will be get rid of if we approve this?" asked Commissioner Jarvis McLamb. Pope said no positions were proposed to be cut, but the measure could help save money in the future.
"It keeps detectives out in the field, where they're working on more cases and makes better use of human resources that we have," Pope said. "The backlog on detectives' cases is about 50 cases a month. They'll be able to work on those a little bit more without having to request additional investigative resources down the road."
"We are anywhere from two to three months behind at the end of every calendar year in getting all this data that takes place during that 12-month period into the SBI, which is what generates the statistical data that comes out annually," said Sheriff Jimmy Thornton. "They stay behind."
'Not a true bid'
Commissioner Albert Kirby said he was impressed with the prospect of the system upgrade, but expressed reservations about the nature of the bid process.
"I'm actually sold on the product, but there's only one issue that's troubling to me," said Kirby. "I thought the process for doing this bid would be that you would put together specifications as to all the things you needed and you'd send it out to every corporation on earth basically, and ask them to give you the best bid and then look into it and see if they were able to do that. There's got to be more than six (vendors).
"I think the product is definitely something that is needed, but $400,000 in my opinion and my limit interaction with computer software is just too much money for this," Kirby continued. "I know there's somebody out there who can do this at a more reasonable rate. In fact, what I was hoping to was get it for about $200,000 and then take the other $200,000 and give all the deputies an increase in their salaries."
"With the jail revenues, we can handle that part too," Thornton shot back.
Sheriff's authorities have pointed to Detention Center 2011-12 year-to-date revenues that far surpass the projected revenues of $455,602. According to Clack, the Detention Center revenues have surpassed projection by nearly $500,000 to date, with that number expected to balloon to $650,000 with additional billing.
Pope said the "vast majority" of Sheriff's Offices in North Carolina use a records management system like the one being proposed by Sampson, with more than 40 others in the state utilizing Southern Software.
"We've asked Sheriff Thornton's department and the county manager to do proposals, and they did that," said chairman Billy Lockamy. "We've got a response back, and it looks like certain companies specialize in certain areas, and this company does this. You all have done exactly what was asked of you to do, and I don't have any problem with it. I feel comfortable with our staff that they have done the right thing."
Kirby said he did not think the bid was done pursuant to the law.
"I contemplated having a request for proposals, but not sending them to six people," Kirby said. "And the people they sent it to are people who have already bid on it. The way this is done, it's not going to drive the price down, if you're going to send it to the same people. That's not a true bid. It's almost like what was done before. It was not bid in the way I contemplated it should have been done whenever I voted."
County manager Ed Causey disagreed with Kirby's assessment.
"A request for proposals does meet the requirements of the law, OK. Very clearly," said Causey. "Having been through the School of Government and worked with any number of (federal) entities, this pretty well complies. Then going to the extra step of advertising it in the newspaper, as far as meeting the law, I'd be pretty confident, not being an attorney, that this meets those requirements."
Strickland asked if sheriff's officials felt like there might be a better deal out there, and whether something could be deleted from the total package to get the cost down. County information technology director Chris Rayner said that any cuts would be very minor.
"It's a package that works all together," said Rayner. "In essence, what we're looking at is a package coming in to do what we need it to do for the Sheriff's Office. I just don't see where, in my opinion, you can take out anything other than a few of the hand devices. That is not going to help defray or bring it to a cheaper price to where we need it to be to make you feel comfortable."
Thornton said Rayner already invested eight days writing specifications, and he didn't want another eight to be spent on the matter.
'Always want more money'
McLamb said the items should simply be placed in the budget and its possible inclusion in the final plan continue to be discussed.
"We have to have some cuts from the Sheriff's Department. They have been increasing yearly for the last eight, nine years, $500,000 to $750,000 a year. No other department has had these increases. We can't fund the school system the way they think we should with so much funding going to the Sheriff's Department. I'm not talking against the job the Sheriff's Department is doing. The sheriff has done good, but they always want more money and really think the commissioners will give it to them. There is a stopping point somewhere."
Thornton asked Clack to clarify the net tax support for the Sheriff's Office.
According to Clack, the net tax support for the Sheriff's Office was $4.86 million in 2012 and $4.75 million in 2011. In 2012, there was $1.08 million in additional revenues, and $759,000 in additional revenues in 2011. In 2010, the net tax support was $4.4 million, offset by more than $968,000 in additional revenue. Thornton also pointed to different programs placed under the Sheriff's Office that are actually funded by other entities, including officers for the towns of Roseboro and Garland, as well as child support agents.
"In reality probably only 70 percent of the total budget is actually taxpayer supported," said Thornton. "Any automobiles, any equipment, any items that were purchased by whatever funds we had available certainly was not a part of the taxpayer's expense. It was included in the budget, however, but it was not funded by the taxpayers."
Lockamy brought the discussion back to the sweeping software upgrade that was on the table. He said he was satisfied with the bid received.
"I feel like it was fairly done and done right," said Lockamy.
"I want to do it right," added Strickland. "I am convinced a system is needed and would be beneficial to our county and I am convinced it is a one-time expense and not a reoccurring expense, and the Detention Center has revenues to support it over and above the budgeted amount. So, things are lining up right to go ahead with it. I move the proposal be accepted as presented."
Kirby and McLamb opposed for a 2-2 vote, with Commissioner John Blanton absent from meetings in recent weeks. The tie vote meant no action could be taken but that the issue could be considered by the board at a later date. Strickland asked that the system, as presented, be "approved in principle as being good for our Sheriff's Department and something this county commissioners board supports and seeks to find the most competitive price."
McLamb asked what purpose that would serve.
"I think it is a good thing Jefferson," said McLamb, "but I think I laid out my feelings a while ago."
"That's not the way I would phrase my support," Kirby added.
Strickland's motion was again seconded by Lockamy, while McLamb and Kirby again opposed.
"I would like the record to show that I think it is a good thing, but I don't think the Sheriff's Department needs it now," said McLamb. Kirby said it was an item that was necessary, however the cost that has been put forth is "way, way too expensive for what is actually being reflected, especially at a time when sheriff's deputies haven't had a raise in six years."
Lockamy said he wanted the record to reflect that "money is there and could be used for a one-time to pay for this with no tax increase." McLamb took issue with the topic of Detention Center revenue.
"I probably should stay quiet, but there's different ways for people to use a figure like this," said McLamb. "The actual profit has not been $650,000 ... there has not been that type of profit, when it is costing us over $50 a day to keep a county prisoner in there. The sheriff and I have discussed this before. He can't agree to my terms and I can't agree to his, not on the profit he's making."
McLamb then echoed Kirby's comments from a previous meeting.
"That's not sheriff's money," he said, "that's county money."
Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 121 or via email at email@example.com.
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