Is it fair to blame IT and the Board?

Linn County Supervisor Ben Rogers says “It is unfair for the auditor to blame the information technology department or the Board. It’s an issue that is more complex than it seems.”  Source:  Data needed for Linn County budgets delayed

Linn County Supervisor Linda Langston says retirements, state law changes, new tax districts, and communications are all factors of this problem, and after things are resolved everyone will sit down and asses how to handle the situation in the future. Source: Linn County Auditor Apologizes for Late Valuation Report

Well, the truth is: It is fair to blame the Board and IT because we had the same problems a year ago. Specifically, no one had retired at that time, the State law changes were already in effect, new tax districts occur every year, and I have had at least eight (8) meetings since 2/17/2015 with the Board to let them know about the software issues.

Here is an excerpt from the official minutes of the Board meeting on 2/17/2015:

Aumentum issues in the Auditor’s Office.   Gordon Thompson, Deputy Auditor, discussed issues from the standpoint of preparing the Valuation Report and reflected upon why it was late. The software was customized for Iowa. TIFS are complicated. They realized half way through how bad it was. The product was being developed as they worked on it. This slowed them down substantially. They worked through trouble shooting and it didn’t balance. The biggest problem was that numbers were not agreeing. Reality was that there was a glitch in the program. The data base was not updated; it wasn’t updated into the overall valuation data base. There was corrective programming going on at the time. It broke the processes in real estate which is less visible.   

Auditor Miller stated that this is something that has never worked.  The system is highly interconnected.  The problem that he has is just because they got the last valuation report to work, does not mean it will work this year.  It isn’t just a matter of producing a report, the question is, are the reports accurate. They need human intervention to verify that the reports are active and don’t lose sight of it.  

Supervisor Rogers asked if there is an acceptable error rate. Are they always supposed to match or is there a margin of error?   

Thompson stated that they have a $10 billion value.  He thinks it has to match to the dollar. There were places where they were off $1,000 which is considered immaterial and that is very rare.  Thompson stated that he wants to balance.  

Stacey Law, Auditor’s Office staff, stated that up until January 18th, Thomson Reuters (software company) was working hard to resolve her issues. Then Finance noticed that the interest amounts in their data were altered and she was having problems with real estate transfers. These are not issues that they can easily find. She stated that she can be in the middle of a process and if a mistake is made, she can’t make any kind of a correction now. Law gave another example of a parcel that came up missing and they don’t know if that parcel showed up on the valuation report.  Thomson Reuters will do something to band aide that issue but not fix the process.  It has been that way the whole process.   She stated that the real estate area has been seen as not a big deal but it’s a big part of the pie.  The software was not developed well for Iowa.  Linn County was promised that it would work but it doesn’t. The Treasurer has been trying to collect taxes on a particular parcel since September and can’t.  

Supervisor Houser asked if there is a performance clause in the contract.  

Miller stated that he does not think that there are any performance measurements or benchmarks.  They either manage a vendor or the vendor manages them.  Right now, it feels like the vendor is managing Linn County.  What incentive do they have? The Board should consider paying them more money to come in and finish what they started. Fix it to a point where they have distribution, interest and everything else that the Treasurer needs.  They need to inform the public, people that he reports to.  They have issues and they need it fixed.  Linn County continues to consume resources and he does not take any pleasure complaining about something that should have been fixed by now.  

Chairperson Langston stated that they did some sign off last spring and probably signed off too early. Linn County still owes them money.  

Phil Lowder, IT Dir., stated that Linn County needed to get off of the mainframe and that was realized in 2006.  They went live with Thomson Reuters (TR) in July 2014.  Iowa was new for TR.  He agrees with a lot of the points that have been covered, noting that they uncover issues as they go.  He clarified that they took Linn County’s data that was 30 years old and put it into a highly complex data base system.

A lot of the issues were data conversion and they are still encountering that.  They have not been through a full tax cycle.  Lowder stated that this is a complex software package. A lot of the time they get a patch as quick as possible and there are side effects. TR has been more responsive than they were in the past. Going forward next year with the valuation report, he anticipates fewer issues.  They will use their liaison with TR ( Liz) as a conduit.  

Chairperson Langston asked at what point is it worthwhile to elevate the issue.  She sent an email last fall that she was with some high level TR folks and she wanted to bring this up.  She didn’t hear back from anybody so she didn’t say anything.  She would have appreciated some feedback.  Is it time to move up to a different level?  

Lowder stated that they have been working with Liz about getting her manager involved.  This is a long term relationship.  It’s appropriate any time to elevate.  

Chairperson Langston stated that she and Lowder will work to construct a letter that the Board continues to hear these issues and problems that remain unsolved and one fix triggers another. That is not acceptable. They are requesting a higher level manager beyond Liz’s manager.  Langston also stated that they will request a meeting and pull together two board members, the Treasurer, Auditor and staff to sit down and say, hey it’s not working for us.     

Miller agreed noting that he has brought this up at how many meetings?  He stated that they need to get to the point where they can brag about it instead of complaining about it.  That’s why he keeps raising this issue and he wants everyone to equally complain.  

Discussion continued regarding the Auditor and members of the Board to be involved in the weekly conference calls with TR.  The Treasurer has been involved every week as well as Auditor staff. It was agreed that Auditor Miller, Supervisors Rogers and Harris will be involved in the weekly conference call meetings.  

Stacey Law also suggested that a board member be involved in the Wednesday Steering Committee meetings and they said they would try.

[None of this changes the fact that I am sorry the valuation report is late. I am committed to ensuring I am not late on the valuation report due on 31 December 2016, which is why I am elevating these issues to the taxpayers now.  Is it fair to blame IT and the Board?  YES!  – Joel D. Miller – Linn County Auditor.]


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