Monday, January 17, 2011

Debt Software in Sacramento Years Late and Millions over Budget

When Sacramento County decided in 2005 to spend $4.four million to custom-build its computer to collect debts, the Board of Supervisors expected to have the work carried out couple of years.

Six years later the expenses have skyrocketed to a lot more than $10 million, and also the county nonetheless does not possess a finished system.

Furthermore, a Bee investigation discovered that the bulk of that money, nearly $8 million, has been earmarked to get a no-bid contract having a consultant who previously had a private, undisclosed relationship using a longtime analyst for your county.

Software designer David Benham had until 2000 lived with Elaine Steidley, an agreement employee using the county. Until recently, she managed the project coupled with co-written the original report calling for a custom-built system instead of cheaper off-the-shelf software.

The county initially contracted with Benham, at Steidley’s recommendation, in 2004 to be effective on its computer. Although he wasn't tapped to steer the project till Might 2007, Benham’s initial benefit the county laid the inspiration for later decisions: Steidley’s report pushed the custom program he designed, and county supervisors later approved and funded it.

Benham’s firm, VComCon, initially was awarded a $4.four million no-bid contract in 2007 to perform the work. Now, using the approval of a $3.4 million contract extension in December, some are questioning if the county must have taken care of a custom-built system in the first place.

“There’s been failing by the administration to make the vendor accountable,” said Ruben Clement, who said he left his finance job using the county’s Revenue Recovery Department in Might in part due to his frustrations with all the computer.

Project defended

The department’s director, Connie Ahmed, defended the project - which is used to gather about $40 million a year in court fines, hospital bills as well as other debts - saying it already has improved the department’s collections.

But she recently acknowledged that she wasn’t alert to the past relationship in between Benham and Steidley. Before the connection found light, Ahmed stated, the county had chose to hire an unbiased auditor to review the project as a result of questions over its delays and cost overruns.

Ahmed blamed the contract extensions working cuts in their department and unexpected technical glitches. The department now expects the program being substantially complete in July, four years later than planned.

Craig Nielson, vice president for sales for Columbia Ultimate, the county’s former debt software provider, is probably the chief critics with the project.

Nielson said his business could supply a system to Sacramento County for less than $1.5 million.

Prior to the project’s $3.4 million contract extension in December, Nielson wrote supervisors about what he known as a “troubling misuse of public funds,” and urged the county to reconsider Columbia Ultimate.

In California, 46 of 58 counties use debt-collection software program made by Columbia Ultimate. Previously, San Diego County spent about $1.3 million for the company’s program, that your county’s Revenue and Recovery Director Gary Colbert says works very well.

“I wasn't going to build our own system,” stated Colbert, adding that he desired to steer clear of the “boondoggle” the Sacramento County project has become. “I didn't wish to be dealing with that problem as is also.”

However, Ahmed said Sacramento County previously had major issues with Columbia Ultimate’s software. The company couldn’t customize this program to fulfill the county’s requirements, leaving county employees to deal with tasks that should happen to be automated, she stated.

Study influenced decision

David Cooley is a former county consultant who managed the debt collection project, but says he was fired from this in 2007. He said Steidley helped steer the county far from Columbia Ultimate.

“It was her assessment that collection rules had been too complex for a program like Columbia to take care of,” Cooley stated.

Steidley met with Revenue Recovery employees to determine which they required in a system. She stated she provided research for your 2005 feasibility study she co-authored with Revenue Recovery’s IT manager, Dan Stevens.

The research recommended the county develop Benham’s style instead of purchasing commercial software offered by six other vendors.

Benham and Steidley, who lived together in houses in Maryland and Sacramento, stated their relationship played no role in Benham getting the seek the project.

Inquired on the type of these relationship, Benham wouldn’t elaborate. “If you want to say I cohabitated with her till 2000, which is fine,” stated Benham, who got married to a new lady that year.

At first, Sacramento County attempted to build the program in-house, using county IT employees and consultants that included Benham.

However with a deadline fast approaching couple of years later, the county quit on constructing the system alone, after working $2.7 million, records show. Employees on the project couldn’t maintain maintenance for that old program while creating a another one, Ahmed stated.

Although he was in control of the project during the time, Cooley blames Benham for the holdup, saying Benham attemptedto go on it over. He explained Benham was trying to develop a very complex system so he could bind the county to his expertise - and be sure himself future service and training contracts.

“He was building a business about the county dime, generating something only he could help,” Cooley said.

Cooley said he was fired in January 2007 for a passing fancy day he earned a presentation to county officials criticizing the direction from the project, and Benham’s role in holding it.

Benham denied Cooley’s accusation which he was stringing the county along. He was quoted saying Cooley’s failure to guide was the reason for his dismissal.

No-bid contract awarded

Whatever the case, the county gave Benham and his business, VComCon, a $4.4 million no-bid contract because he designed the program, Ahmed stated.

The company doesn’t have an office, as well as the county project may be the only considerable work it has handled, Benham said. The company’s six employees operate in an income Recovery office.

The contract “safeguards the county against further price overruns,” Ahmed wrote supervisors in 2007.

That year, Steidley was allotted to oversee the contract as project manager, a job she had until last year.

The project hit an additional snag in 2009: Testing revealed new variations inside the department’s information which meant the machine needed more functions, Ahmed said.

That ultimately led to the $3.four million contract extension in December.

The current contract amendment says the software is going to be substantially done in July, but necessitates five much more years of training and help by VComCon at a cost of more than $3 million.

The amendment also provides Benham intellectual property rights for your software, meaning they can sell this program to other counties.

Ahmed previously had argued the county can use the rights to offer the product along with other counties, and recover some of its costs. In December, she said the county consented to give up these rights to reduce Benham’s contract price.

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