Common Sense or Nonsense? You decide…
Following a harsh exchange of words by elected officials Monday morning, Montgomery County Commissioners voted to terminate a recently approved contract for delinquent collection services based on their objection to a free software package none of them appear to have noticed was included. The software package was neither hidden nor secret.
The contract clearly shows it listed as the first bulleted item in the first section of the first page:
- · Use of the ICON Justice of the Peace Case Management Software as provided in the License Agreement (attachment A).
According to Precinct 4 Justice of the Peace James Metts, the software resolved a second issue at no cost to taxpayers, but county commissioners are determined to force a cumbersome and problem plagued system on the Justices of the Peace instead.
“We have two solutions that are in the best interest of the public we serve and our staffs who are spread thin due to budget limitations, but for reasons they are unable or unwilling to explain, the commissioners want us to use a software system that would catapult us back to the Stone Age,” Metts said. “What happened in Commissioners Court Monday is unconscionable and an embarrassment to the county, especially so soon after a grand jury felt the need to admonish them over their handling of contracts connected with the Joe Corley Detention Center and the county’s mental health facility.”
In October 2012, Montgomery County Justices of the Peace (Precincts 1,2,4 and 5) put out a Request for Proposal for a vendor to assist the county in collecting the approximately $10 million in outstanding fines and fees. Among the seven vendors responding was Graves, Humphries, Stahl, LTD (the largest collector for JP courts in Texas) who included in their bid a case management system, ICON, as a vehicle to more efficiently communicate with the courts, as well as allow the courts to become more operationally efficient. The system, offered free of charge, is the same one for which Dallas County recently paid $1.2 million.
GHS and ICON were researched and information gathered by the JP’s indicated a strong record of success in delinquent collections and a high rate of satisfaction and reliability connected with their software, Metts said. JP court clerks got a hands-on demonstration of the software, which they found fast and user friendly, he said.
GHS provides a fully integrated collections system that updates itself as opposed to clerks continually preparing and sending information for a third party. This appealed to Pct. 2 Justice of the Peace Trey Spikes because he has a small staff and it would free two people to perform other duties. Judge Metts, the only Montgomery County JP whose office performs its own collections, said as the fourteenth busiest JP court in the state, he would benefit greatly by having staff members relieved of dealing with collections to provide faster and better service to the public.
County Commissioners had already approved Tyler Technologies as the vendor for providing a countywide integrated software system. However, it was understood that four of the five Justices of the Peace were vehemently opposed to Tyler Technologies’ software and the Sheriff’s Office was also searching for its own solution.
Judge Metts and Judge Spikes said they were assured using another software vendor would not be a problem. That is, until they found one.
Commissioners signed the GHS contract in January. Theoretically, the collections program should already have been up and running. However, the county’s Information/Technology Director, who is the custodian of the data required to proceed, refused to authorize the release of that data to GHS.
On April 10, Judge Metts sent a letter to all four commissioners and County Judge Barb Sadler making them aware of the issue and requesting their assistance in getting data released so the collections process could begin. Instead, an item appeared on the Commissioners Court Agenda calling for termination of the GHS contract.
Judge Metts was first to address the court Monday.
“Recently, you gentlemen circulated a letter with your names on it that highly encouraged if not demanded that all department heads and elected officials run their offices as frugally and efficiently as possible,” Metts said. “For the last 10 years that’s what I’ve done in Precinct 4, as well as the other JP’s.”
He reminded the court they encouraged the RFP that resulted in the contract they were about to terminate – a contract that was recommended by the Purchasing Department and approved by all the commissioners.
“Along with the collections contract you voted on and approved, we also got the software we need to run our offices,” Metts said. “We believe it’s top of the line, and we’re getting that for zero dollars.”
He asked them to consider what the same software cost Dallas County in contrast.
“I’ll probably have a difficult time explaining to the people of Precinct 4 that we had a very good program here for zero dollars, and zero risk to the county to get our collections in line, and provide us with what we need to be in compliance with the Office of Court Administration versus spending up to a million dollars if we don’t go through with it,” Metts said. “I can’t figure out why you can get something free but you’d want to go spend a million dollars somewhere else.”
“Maybe someone can explain that to me,” he challenged. No one responded.
The judge pointed out that no member of the court had been a Justice of the Peace, saying it is a “difficult and demanding job” and the JP’s were requesting any help the court could give them in operating their offices as “efficiently and frugally” as possible.
Judge Sadler sounded exasperated, responding that the position of the court “has been to do everything we can to help your department any way we can… within reason.”
“What we need,” Sadler continued, “is the integrated justice system that we’re paying big dollars for and that includes all the courts, law enforcement, all the district judges, county judges, JP courts, everything down to patrol cars.. and Tyler is the only system that really meets those goals.”
“How do you know that, Judge?” Metts asked. “That’s wrong. Your information is wrong, Sir.”
“The reason I know that,” Metts continued, “I spent $5,000 to find that out – You were misled, Sir.”
“You have to understand that there are 254 counties in Texas, all with courts and municipalities – Now multiply that times 50 states,” Metts said. “You’re going to expect me to believe Tyler Technologies is the only one that can provide software solutions to all those people? I don’t buy it.”
Metts said when he invested personal funds in researching the matter there were three companies in Texas alone that were capable of what Sadler claimed only Tyler could create, and there were “a multitude” found capable nationwide.
Judge Sadler then shifted gears from his original contention that only Tyler Technologies could accomplish the county’s goal.
“It’s the best one that Marshall Shirley could find for us,” Sadler said. “We trust Marshall. I think this entire court does.”
“I’m glad that you do, because I don’t,” Metts responded.
James Noack, the freshman Commissioner from Precinct 3, became visibly angry and was openly hostile raising his voice theatrically in defense of Marshall Shirley.
“I’ve already laid them out,” Metts said. “I sent a letter out last year.”
As he attempted to tell Noack using Tyler would be a huge step backward for the JP’s, and reminded Noack he had not held that position, an even angrier Noack interrupted.
“There’s a lot of things I haven’t done and I can decide on what’s going to work,” Noack said. “We’ve got a lot of people here to help us make decisions- no doubt we need an integrated justice system and everybody needs to be part of it and I haven’t seen anything that’s come to me that’s proven to me that Tyler Technologies is not going to work for you and the rest of the JP’s.”
“You haven’t looked very closely,” Metts replied. “I’ve laid it out for you – it will not work for us.”
Metts later said he would provide Noack with the same letter the other commissioners received, which included a detailed list of lawsuits and debates occurring nationwide regarding problems attributed to Tyler Technologies software.
Some examples of issues with Tyler can be found by clicking the following links:
Judge Metts told the court that the previous year he was assured by Judge Sadler, Marshall Shirley and Pct. 2 Commissioner Craig Doyal together and individually, that no one was “going to force Tyler Technologies” on the JP’s.
“Marshall Shirley told me that wouldn’t be a problem- that there was something called “middleware” and these would join together, and you were going to go and check that out for us,” Metts said. “But here we are today.”
Shirley then talked about he and the committee who decided on Tyler, admitted he knew there were issues with their software. He recalled attending a NetData (parent company of GHS) presentation at Judge Spikes’ request.
“So subsequently, and If I could do it over again, I would’ve issued an RFP at this time,” Shirley said.
He explained the rest of the process, including his presentation of the $6.9 million Tyler proposal that eventually resulted in a signed contract with the county.
“We did what we thought would be best for the county,” Shirley said. “It was all reviewed by the committee.”
He called the Tyler product “the premier product in the nation,” and claimed the issues people had with Tyler’s software were in the past.
“I certainly hope that no one is questioning my desire and ability to do what’s best for Montgomery County,” Shirley said. “If they are they should step forward and show how I’m not.”
Judge Metts points out a simple Google search shows Tyler Technologies continues to make news with major issues and complaints from users, some of whom want out of their expensive contracts.
Shirley went on to say his only issues with the GHS contract were connected with the ICON software, and that the conditions were “not adequately addressed.” He expressed his objection to being asked for all of the data and then made a less than flattering statement to the court.
“I currently do not believe that the contract spells that out or calls for that, nor do I think that you as a court understood what was underneath that contract,” Shirley said, referring to the contract that was already approved and signed and only held up by his refusal to release the JP’s data.
After continued discussion, Pct. 1 Commissioner Mike Meador said, “So maybe we’re doing the wrong thing – maybe we ought to just pull the money back.”
“Obviously it’s a big fight and I just don’t see a good future for it the way things are going.”
Noack quickly jumped in once more, saying stepping away from the Tyler system was not what should be done.
“We have to move forward with an integrated justice system,” Noack said to Judges Metts and Spikes. “You’re gonna have to get onboard.”
Judge Spikes responded in frustration.
“You’re going to sit here today and tell the JP’s they’re going to have go a certain way because it’s integrated when we for two years have been saying it’s cumbersome, it’s hard on us, it’s going to require more staff and you’re willing to say you’re going to go with it anyway?”
“It’s just going to be different,” Noack said. “It’s going to be a change and you’re not going to like all the changes that come through the county, but we cannot operate like we’re in the Stone Age any longer.”
Noack accused Spikes of not providing any “solid facts” about issues with Tyler and challenged him to do so.
Spikes gave the example that it takes five minutes to enter a citation, which occurs thousands of times each month in each JP office, and takes only 30 to 35 seconds on the current system which most would consider antiquated.
Sadler deferred to Shirley who said he “assumed” the reference was to a visit to a JP office in New Waverly, where he blamed bandwidth and a remote server. However, clerks who tried the Tyler software previously cited having to go through multiple screens to do what can already be accomplished on one screen.
Shirley readily admitted the current Tyler product was probably not as fast as the system the JP’s offices currently use and seek to upgrade.
As for the Sheriff’s Office, Chief Deputy Randy McDaniel said Sheriff Tommy Gage met with Tyler representatives and examined other possibilities, and the MCSO is “certainly not committed to Tyler.”
“My understanding is that the systems that are for the Sheriff’s office are the weakest links of the whole integrated system,” McDaniel said.”
Sadler soon banged the gavel and said “We’re going to limit further debate on this until after the executive session.”
However, following the executive session, the court quickly read the motion and voted to terminate the contract with GHS, leaving those opposed to the termination looking at one another in disbelief. Judge Spikes had stated he would continue his comments after executive session, but the court first voted and moved on to other business.
Eventually, Sadler offered Spikes the opportunity to speak.
Spikes told the court it was “disappointing” that the county as a whole would not have the opportunity to use a free program that would benefit everyone.
“It’s very discouraging that our current commissioners and county judge would fight so hard against something that will cost the county nothing and will bring in so much money, in addition to make our offices more efficient and provide faster service to the public,” Judge Metts said. “Meanwhile, they’re doing everything possible to force a software vendor on the county that charges millions of dollars and has been a nightmare for so many users nationwide.”
“By the IT Director’s own admission, Tyler’s software is slower than what we currently use, so why would we want to pay for something that’s going to impede progress? That makes no sense to me,” he said.
“I take public service very seriously and when looking at these systems, I considered not only how they would affect my office and the data we’re responsible for, but also how using them would directly affect the public and whether they would be an efficient use of tax dollars,” he said. “No one can show me the logic in spending so much money for something that will slow us down, potentially lose a large amount of data and become obsolete in a few years so that we’re again forced to spend more money for inadequate results.”
“This is unacceptable, and I will not take it lying down.”