City commits to big spend on big software upgrade

In 1992, the same year Bill Clinton was elected to his first term as president, the City of New Bern installed a software system called Banner. It’s still in use today, even though the software developer got out of the municipal software business long ago and focuses on education institutional software now.

Only one person among the 450 who work at New Bern City Hall knows how to maintain the Banner system, and the company that makes it will stop supporting the version the city uses in early 2018.

The city’s aging software system has been a subject of conversation by city leaders for at least eight years, but because the “current” version is aging out in 2018, there has been an increased sense of urgency that began in March.

The city has zeroed in on an “enterprise resource planning” (ERP for short) software package called Munis by Tyler Technologies. Described as the Cadillac of municipal software packages, Munis is used by more than 1,500 counties and cities including 89 in North Carolina and two in Craven County (Craven County, which is installing the system, and Havelock).

Munis will be able to handle functions throughout city hall, including financials, human resources management, computer information services, utility billing, contract and purchasing, content management, project and grant accounting, comprehensive annual financial report, time and attendance, work orders, talent management and permits and inspections.

In New Bern, those functions are presently handled by six other software systems or some other workaround (including forms filled out by hand, in triplicate). Costs to run and maintain the systems run at $273,000 a year, and with needed upgrades would cost the city $3.94 million over the next 10 years.

The Munis system, on the other hand, would cost the city about $106,000 a year following an up-front implementation cost of $1.35 million. The 10-year cost with the new system would be $2.6 million.

So, in boffin-speak, the city would save $1.34 million over 10 years by going with the new system, plus have software that is more integrated and user-friendly.

The bid for the project expires at the end of this month, so there was a sense of urgency in moving forward.

The Board of Aldermen went over the specs during a work session on Tuesday, but inexplicably went ahead and OK’d the new system (6-1, with Mayor Dana Outlaw voting against, saying that he would rather gamble on the price going up than gamble on the budgeted contingency — $115,000 — being sufficient to pay for unforeseen costs).

Inexplicably? The meeting was a work session, not a regular meeting. The board has one more meeting this month, on Nov. 28, before the bid expires. Typically, among most local elected bodies, work sessions are intended to work out bugs and regular sessions are intended to take action. Both run off agendas that are publicly available, both types of meetings are public, but regular sessions tend to be better attended by the public and media.

It amounts to a lame-duck board (four new members — a majority of the seven-member board — take office in December) committing to spend more than a million bucks during a work session just weeks before the new members take their seats. Erp!

Regardless of anything else, Outlaw said, because of the outdated system now in place, “This board or the next will implement a new system.”

Aldermen-elect Sabrina Bengel and Jameesha Harris attended Tuesday’s work session as private citizens. (Aldermen-elect Bobby Aster and Barbara Best did not.) Mayor Outlaw gave Bengel and Harris the floor to express any concerns. Harris said she supports city staff’s proposal and would vote for it.

Bengel, on the other hand, had some questions. She wanted to know why the cost increased from when it was initially unveiled in October, to when it was re-presented on Tuesday. City staff accounted for some of the discrepancy, but not the majority of it. Bengel also wanted to know whether the system would be compatible with the city’s electric utility billing software, which handles $80 million per year in utility payments.

“I strongly support the new system,” Bengel said. “I’m just concerned about the missing pieces.”

Following the meeting, Bengel expressed concerns about a decision involving such high expense being made at a work session. She sent Mayor Outlaw a message about her concerns:

My overall comment is that a Work Session should be for review and comment only and not a vote, especially when spending that large amount of taxpayer dollars. I do understand that the voting part of the agenda was noticed but felt strongly that it should not have been included in the agenda. There was no representative from Tyler to really assure us of what the system can and can not do. I also was concerned that you did not have any comment from Jordan or Carl Toler relative to the AMI system and the pay as you go application.

Our citizens deserve better when it comes to spending large sums of money and this item should have been scheduled for a vote at the next regular meeting of the Board of Alderman.  There still is a regular meeting on November 28th so the vote could have taken place then and possibly a Tyler rep could have been present and still meet the Nov 30 quote deadline.  I like you agree that Tyler would have happily given us at least another 30 days on a contract of this size.

Going forward I will ask the Board of Aldermen to review our policy for Work Sessions. The most transparent thing would be that during Work Sessions we review and discuss items in an informal manner that will be coming forward for a formal vote in the future. Work sessions should be where we get and digest information on particular items and then allow us some time to do additional research or ask questions based on what we learned at the Work Session.  If an item must be decided due to deadlines, etc I would ask that a special meeting be called to make the vote.

I am committed to working towards a more transparent process for our Board and most importantly for our citizens.

November 24th, 2017 by
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