City stops software project

Published 6:55 pm Saturday, February 7, 2015

Suffolk’s city treasurer is working to get council members on his side after he says the city manager canceled a software launch on the eve of it going live, but city officials contend there were multiple problems with the project and they had to cut their losses.

Treasurer Ron Williams said multiple city departments have been working on the project since 2010. He estimated the city’s total investment in the project to be about $1.1 million, including the contract and staff time — and he considers that to be a conservative estimate.

“We’ve got a lot of taxpayer dollars invested in this,” Williams said.

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On Feb. 3, city Information Technology Director Ken Beam wrote in a letter to PCI LLC that the city wished to terminate its contract for the company to install revenue collection and billing software.

The problem, according to a Feb. 4 letter from City Manager Selena Cuffee-Glenn to council members, is that the new system will not automatically interface with the finance department’s New World-manufactured system, which would require city staff to manually enter data on the amount of revenue collected each day into the city’s general ledger.

But Williams contends that such an interface does exist and is currently being used by some of PCI’s other clients. It is “not a deal breaker, as multiple solutions have been offered for consideration,” he wrote in a letter to council members.

But city Finance Director Lenora Reid said in a Friday interview that it’s not as easy as Williams makes it sound, and that there are no localities where PCI and New World are used together.

She would have to devote almost an entire full-time position in her office to manually enter data, she said.

“It would have been a short-term solution,” she said. What’s more, the PCI system was not even producing accurate reports for that staff member to use in doing so.

Reid said the interface the city tried to use was performing with only about 35 percent accuracy when transferring amounts from PCI to New World, even after PCI staff worked on the problem on site.

“My recommendation was a no-go, because I’m responsible for the accuracy in financial reporting,” Reid said.

The lack of a resolution was not for lack of trying, Reid added.

“They put 110 percent of their time and energy trying to make it work,” she said. Both she and Beam reassigned duties or postponed other projects to give their staff more time to work on it, they said.

The city’s financial offices currently use an older system manufactured by BAI that, Williams said, is not web-based, is more labor-intensive, produces too much paper and is too time-consuming during individual transactions. Staying on the system would require costly upgrades and would require the IT department to hire an additional employee exclusively to work on BAI, Williams said.

“It’s got far-reaching implications for the service level to the citizens and the city’s ability to efficiently and effectively collect revenue,” Williams said.

With that in mind, the city began exploring solutions in 2009 and issued a request for proposals in 2010, which eventually led to the contract with PCI. The company’s client list represents more than 30 percent of Virginia’s population, Williams said.

Based on other localities’ experiences, Williams expects the system to pay for itself in less than three years by reducing staff time, streamlining transactions and improving delinquent collections.

Suffolk has been successfully using the system for miscellaneous transactions since July 2011, resulting in more than 78,000 transactions totaling $541 million in revenue, Williams said.

The city manager decided to scrap the project on the eve of its Jan. 26 go-live date, Williams said. The finance department would rather pay for needed upgrades to continue operating under the old system “despite the challenges it creates for the Treasurer, Commissioner of the Revenue, and Assessor,” Williams wrote to council members. “Unfortunately, these upgrades would amount to no more than a ‘Band-Aid’ solution to the underlying problems with BAI.”

He added that PCI is offering to have its own staff member personally finish the final details of the interface and is “prepared to do whatever it takes.”

“A growing and progressive city like Suffolk with a AAA bond rating and diverse economy needs a revenue software that will grow with it,” Williams wrote in conclusion.

He included a letter from PCI that affirmed its commitment to helping Suffolk finish implementing the project.

Beam said the BAI system needs only minor upgrades and training for some newer employees who have not yet worked with it.

“It’s not a dead application,” he said. “Some of the features they liked in PCI are now available in BAI.”

Reid also said using an unreliable system, as she considers PCI currently, would jeopardize the city’s financial stability, audits and ultimately its bond rating.

City Chief of Staff Debbie George said Friday that Suffolk will continue to work on BAI and seek ways to improve the system. The legal department also is looking into the PCI contract to see if there is a way to recoup some of the losses, she said.

There have been at least four “go-live” dates set in the last 18 months, but all of them had to be pushed back because of the issues with PCI, she added.

Near the end of Wednesday’s council meeting, Councilman Mike Duman asked Cuffee-Glenn for information about the project, but she said she would contact council members individually, “so that you can have the facts.”

“I’m just not going to walk away from this thing and allow them to scrap it without a fight,” Williams said. “I wanted council to know how strongly I felt about it. We’ve appealed to council to hopefully get this consideration and hopefully allow this project to go forward and preserve that investment the taxpayers have made.”