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Reboot of computer project for courts sought

After sinking nearly $10-million and years of labor into an enhanced computer system for local courts, Pinellas County leaders want to scrap the in-house effort and pay a private company millions more to complete the job.

In 2003, officials predicted that by spending $12-million they could build a new Consolidated Justice Information System in just three years. Better case management and reduced paper-flow were among the goals.

The work done so far has led to valuable improvements, officials said, but progress has been slow. It's estimated that at the county's current pace, it will take five years and another $13-million to finish the project.

"We recognized that as stewards of the taxpayers' assets … we had to explore what the other options are," said 6th Judicial Circuit Chief Judge Robert Morris, who joined the upgrade effort last year.

An audit the county's Clerk of the Circuit Court released in June 2007 blasted the project as poorly planned, managed and overseen. The audit describes failed leadership and a mission rashly undertaken.

Clerk of the Circuit Court Ken Burke requested the audit. Burke sits on the Consolidated Justice Information System Policy Board, which also includes Morris, County Commissioner Ken Welch, Public Defender Bob Dillinger, Sheriff Jim Coats and State Attorney Bernie McCabe, among others.

The county's Business Technology Services Board, on which other local officials sit, has also played a role. As has the county's Business Technology Services department, which in 2003 began the work of actually developing a new system.

Business technology director Paul Alexander said Friday that the audit was accurate.

"There were no surprises," Alexander said. "It was very much on point and incredibly painful for me personally and my whole department."

In May the CJIS Policy Board and other stakeholders met and decided that continuing alone was no longer feasible. The solution: buy an off-the-shelf system from a private technology company. The county has yet to ask for bids. It's estimated the private-sector route will cost $8-million over five years.

Plans call for Pasco County, which like Pinellas is part of the 6th Judicial Circuit, to pay some of that money.

Last year's audit criticized officials for failing to keep records of how much time and money had been devoted to the project. Alexander puts the amount at $9.9-million. Some of that went to private contractors who were hired to help, he said, but most of the money paid county employees.

Alexander estimates that $7.6-million worth of work was not wasted, but produced numerous technological tools beneficial to the county. For instance, people can now book camp sites online at Fort De Soto Park rather than in person, and that's due to work on the court computer system.

The move has increased revenue from Fort De Soto Park camp sites, Alexander said.

Still, he readily acknowledges the job at hand has not gotten done.

"The dollars that were spent are indeed going to benefit us," Alexander said. "Did we hit the finish line? No, we did not."

Alexander said it's a good question why he didn't call for the project to be stopped, but said he was just learning the terrain and viewed the work as part of a strategic initiative to spawn change throughout the county's entire technology complex.

Welch and others said the decision to move ahead with in-house development of a new court computer system took place before Alexander began work for the county. At the time, private companies didn't offer the kinds of products they do today, they said.

Welch said Alexander inherited a largely broken information technology department where project tracking, performance measures and other routine management tools were unknown, and credits him with turning the department around.

"We didn't even have a common e-mail system" Welch said. "He had a lot of cleaning up to do."

Welch said that with the improvements Alexander has made, the project is now being handled effectively and responsibly.

"We have taken steps to make sure there is more ownership and oversight," he said.

Consultants from the Williamsburg, Va.-based National Center for State Courts are being hired to help select the best private system for the county's needs. The projected cost of the consulting services is just shy of $200,000.

Will Van Sant can be reached at vansant@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4166.

Reboot of computer project for courts sought 09/07/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 10, 2008 7:21pm]
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