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Assessing software causes Hubbard County headaches, losses

An attempt to purchase property recording and tax assessment software has turned into a quarter-million dollar boondoggle for Hubbard County.

Wednesday, Hubbard County's board members popped their proverbial gaskets at the software provider's inability to meet all deadlines to have the system functional, while pocketing county money.

"How did we get sucked into this?" asked commissioner Dick Devine of the Michigan-based company called Manatron that claimed to be a "global leader in providing enterprise-level, integrated property software systems."

The answer was that more than two-dozen counties formed a consortium and purchased the software through Minnesota Counties Computer Cooperative.

County Assessor Bob Hansen explained that the old system, called ACS Property Tax or ACS Tax Solutions, had been on the wane.

"We've been patching and failing, patching and failing for years," he told the board. He and Auditor Pam Heeren were skeptical the company could provide for the county's future needs. But in the process, the county has let a service and maintenance agreement with ACS expire, effective Tuesday, while it still is running its tax and property records and billing through ACS.

"The co-op went out and bid this thing," Hansen explained. "The company was highly touted as far as beta testing."

Beta testing is a limited release of software to iron out the bugs. Manatron was to have had the software installed by the end of 2008. That deadline came and went. Meanwhile, the company threatened to fine Hubbard County $50,000 if it hadn't streamlined its own conversion process for the software installation.

"I'm struck by the arrogance of this company," Devine fumed. "We're out hanging over a cliff and the company that has never made a deadline is the answer? We're risking a lot on this and we now have no backups."

Three counties, listed as pilot projects for the launch, still do not have their Manatron software, while the consortium of other counties waits. Hansen brought the board a letter from Martin County in which leaders have cut off any future funding.

"Each additional delay enforces our concerns that we will not receive a fully working tax system," Martin County board chair Steve Donnelly wrote to Manatron.

To date, Hubbard County has spent $180, 223.41, with additional payments due that will reach $220,000. The board directed county coordinator Jack Paul to send the company a similarly worded letter as Martin County sent, and board members even raised the threat of a lawsuit.

"Can we sue to get our quarter-million back?" asked commissioner Don Carlson.

Hansen doubted it. He said the county was "paying for the development" of the product.

"We shouldn't have been paying all along," objected commissioner Cal Johannsen.

Heeren repeatedly questioned why MCCC wasn't going to bat on behalf of the co-operative, enforcing contract language penalizing Manatron for non-performance.

"Why aren't there (contractual) penalties that they haven't produced in time? They should be supporting the ASC Tax Service for us since they didn't make the deadline," she asserted.

"In what circumstances does a county get put in this situation?" Devine questioned. "We're on the brink of disaster."

Manatron's Web site claims customers get the benefit of its 40 years of expertise in computerized property tax recording, billing and assessing. Company representatives did not respond to an Enterprise request for comment.

Hansen told the board leaving ACS was a prudent decision. "We were concerned where we would end up."

"Do we go with the leftovers or with the majority?' Heeren asked the board.

"We go with what's best for the county," board chair Lyle Robinson said.

Tom Hankins, a contractor who works for the county's Internet Technology management, has attended meetings for the product's deployment.

"This is the first company I've ever dealt with that has a high end product and no support," he told the board. He said other county's IT departments have worked "hundreds of hours" trying to get their software working.

"This concerns me for Hubbard County," he said. "That original cost estimate of $197,000, there's way more cost overruns. That figure's gonna get bloated. The cost of getting this up and running will be way more.

"It really concerns me that the only support here is the other counties," he said.

"I suspect as a group we're looking at some type of liability action but at what time do you do this?" Hansen questioned.

"Better today than tomorrow and it should have been done yesterday," Carlson responded. "It sounds to me like we're involved with a company that can't manage itself."