18
Sep

Muscogee considers Tyler Technologies for court project despite property tax controversy – Columbus Ledger-Enquirer

Tyler Technologies, the Texas-based vendor that implemented a controversial countywide property revaluation project in Muscogee County, is the same company being considered for a new comprehensive court management system.

Deputy City Manager Pam Hodge said the project being considered is part of a citywide Information Technology initiative to migrate major departmental computer systems from an antiquated mainframe to a newer, robust web-based environment.

Earlier this year, the city implemented a software conversion project through a company called CGI for the Human Resources, Finance and Payroll departments. The Tyler Technologies revaluation project was conducted over the past few years in conjunction with a software conversion effort for the Tax Assessor’s and Tax Commissioner’s offices. Next on the list is an integrated court computer system with record keeping and case management capabilities.

Hodge said Tyler held a demo for judges and other criminal justice officials a couple of months ago, and everyone seemed to like what they saw. The city hopes to brief Columbus councilors and get their feedback in the near future. She said the cost of the proposed project is still being discussed. If implemented, the system would provide criminal justice officials with end-to-end access to critical information, from the time a suspect is arrested all the way through the court process.

“The issue with the court management system is that there are so many users from different departments and elected officials who use it,” Hodge said. “You have the Sheriff’s Office, the judges — both state and superior. You’ve got the clerks’ offices; state, superior and municipal courts. The Police Department and Marshal’s Office all utilize the court system.

“We brought that group together and they looked at different systems,” she said. “I think in the end, the consensus has been from all of those different courts, elected officials and offices, to implement the Tyler court management system. And so that’s really where we’re at in the process, the evaluation phase. It hasn’t gone to council for approval. It hasn’t gone to council for presentation or discussion. We’re just trying to get all the parties on board on what their need is for the system.”

The Political Fallout

Tyler Technologies, based in Plano, Texas, is the largest company in the nation solely focused on providing integrated software and technology services to the public sector, according to its website. Hodge said the city has been working with the company for years, utilizing its products in the Tax Assessor’s and Tax Commissioners offices, as well as the business license, inspection and code, planning and engineering departments, and Superior Court.

She said Tyler isn’t required to go through the city’s bidding process because it is listed with the National Joint Powers Alliance, a national municipal contracting agency that provides cooperative contract purchasing services to more than 50,000 member agencies streamlining the purchasing process.

The possible court management project comes at a time when the city is still reeling from the property revaluation/software conversion project that increased some assessments by as much as 1,000 percent, sparking outrage among property owners.

The project involved converting Tyler’s Oasis software, which the city had been using since 1984, to its iasWorld product. The upgrade has cost the city about $2.8 million and the reappraisal project another $1.7 million, for a total of $4.5 million. Annual maintenance will cost $184,560.

Exorbitant increases in property assessments resulted in more than 10,000 appeals.

The project also delayed tax notices and the Tax Commissioner’s submittal of the tax digest to the State Revenue Commissioner, causing both the city and Muscogee County School Board to pursue temporary loans to alleviate cash flow issues.

Some Columbus Councilors, including Gary Allen and Glenn Davis, have been critical of Tyler and tax assessors amid the political firestorm. Mayor Teresa Tomlinson, who disagreed with councilors on the issue, said she’s not sure how the controversy would affect plans for the court computer upgrade.

“We’ve been waiting years, years to get our court system synchronized and it has all kinds of ramifications for the Rapid Resolution folks, the courts, moving cases along, all the things that we struggle with,” she said. “Tyler Technologies is the premier vendor. … I’m not sure they would want to do business with us anymore, frankly. The way they’ve been portrayed in the media would probably cause there to be a political backlash if their name was mentioned.

“ … I think it’s the classic example of how the political fallout from something, and the look for a scapegoat, frankly, may well result in us not being able to move forward with something we’ve been waiting to do for 15 years.”

On Aug. 29, several representatives from Tyler appeared at a Columbus work session and business meeting, at the request of frustrated councilors. Randy Lomax, an attorney representing the Muscogee County Board of Tax Assessors, said he had reviewed a video of a previous meeting and made a list of about 25 council questions that company representatives were there to address.

Tomlinson said councilors had questions about whether there was a software failure. They also wanted to know if a test was run before rolling out the system and if a side-by-side comparison was conducted with the old software.

Mary Griffin, a senior project manager for the company, said the system was tested at every phase of implementation for two solid years.

“There is no system glitch, there is no software problem with the production of these values,” she said. “It is standard operating software. We use it in many jurisdictions all over Georgia, very successfully. And I’m very confident that it’s not a software issue related to this valuation.”

Councilor Skip Henderson said either misinformation was entered into the system or Tyler utilized statistical data that wasn’t the best choice for Muscogee County.

The discussion got heated when Columbus Councilor Gary Allen accused the company of not following through with aspects of the contract that required regular meetings with the public, via radio and television. He also repeated his claim that councilors were unaware of the exorbitant assessment increases until citizens received their tax notices, and he chastised Lomax for not sending councilors copies of the questions that he sent to Tyler before the meeting.

“It just seems like this house of cards is falling apart, and it’s just ridiculous,” said Allen, who represents constituents in the panhandle who were among the most negatively impacted by assessment increases. “My 24 years on this City Council we have never had something fall apart like this. It is the most frustrating thing I’ve ever attempted to deal with.”

Tomlinson said she believed there were some issues in the Columbus market, not related to Tyler.

“My takeaway has been there were some systemic things about Muscogee County — the fact that we hadn’t had a countywide revaluation in 35 years, the fact that we do have a freeze, which any jurisdiction in the country that has it tends to have these anomalies of non-aggressive assessments through those years, ” she said. “… And so, all of that sort of resulted in a huge political affect, meaning our constituency is shocked by the results.”

Tyler Problems Elsewhere

In addition to the Columbus controversy, Tyler has recently received bad publicity for at least two other court-related projects in other states.

In Alameda County, Calif., for example, dozens of defendants were wrongly arrested, jailed or forced to register as sex offenders after the superior court switched to the company’s Odyssey court management system, according to multiple media reports. Some public defenders complained that the $4.5 million upgrade was inadequate for the county’s needs.

In Shelby County, Tenn., officials complained of significant problems after the roll-out of a multi-million dollar criminal justice information system integration project, according to the Memphis Commercial-Appeal.

“Weeks of problems ensued, including delays in releasing inmates who were supposed to be let out and with deputies having trouble trying to locate inmates in the jail to bring them to court,” according to the newspaper report. “Judges and lawyers couldn’t access information properly. …”

Tyler issued public statements addressing the two cases, which are posted on its website.

“While Tyler does not make a practice of commenting on client operations, sensational headlines and selected quotes are shaping an inaccurate story and we are compelled to provide clarification,” read a Feb. 7 statement regarding Alameda County.

“Media reports have made assumptions about Odyssey based solely on the Alameda court project,” it continued. “The Alameda implementation is representative of neither Odyssey implementations nor of the partnerships Tyler typically fosters with its thousands of clients. In California alone, superior courts in 24 counties are live on Odyssey.”

The company also asserted: “… Media reports concluded that Odyssey is inadequate for Alameda County, without examining the role the Court played in the implementation. The Superior Court of Alameda County transitioned from a 40-year-old system before they were ready. Tyler advised against going live when scheduled because of difficulties the Court faced in defining business processes, a lack of uniform approaches among judges, budget challenges and difficulties with standard client implementation tasks. In fact, Tyler specifically advised the Court that, unless it was more prepared for go-live, data entry would fall behind and problems would result.”

The statement regarding Shelby County was released Dec. 7, 2016, seeking to correct what Tyler described as “inaccurate news media coverage, including false claims of wrongful incarceration due to Tyler’s software.”

“Tyler’s project team has been and continues to be on site since the onset of the implementation, and is actively working with county staff daily, if not hourly, on normal, post-implementation issues,” according to the statement. “Nothing has been reported to Tyler that would indicate that an individual has stayed in jail longer than they should have because of Odyssey software. Odyssey is one of six systems that went live in early November as part of the county’s court and jail systems upgrade, with a separate vendor responsible for the jail system and another responsible for the integrations between the systems.”

In the statement, the company also denied media reports of litigation between Tyler and Shelby County.

“Tyler Technologies is not a party to any litigation involving Odyssey anywhere in the country,” according to the news release. “Similarly, reports of other jurisdictions with challenges during their Odyssey implementations are at best misleading on multiple levels.”

Tyler in Georgia

On Friday, the Ledger-Enquirer interviewed Bruce Graham, president of Tyler’s Court and Justice Division. He said the company now serves 31 percent of the state’s population with the Odyssey courts and criminal justice solution that Muscogee County is considering. He said it’s already installed in Fulton, Chatham and other counties. Projects in Gwinnett and DeKalb Counties are in the works.

“We’re very familiar with Georgia; this is a state that we’ve served for a very long time,” he said. “We also have a system called eFileGA that serves over 50 percent of the Georgia population. It’s a strong track record for us with each of those, and as you’d expect they are complex systems, very dependent on what we’re converting from. Every one is different, but we’ve had a track record of success for some time.

“Outside of the South, we serve 40 percent of the U.S. population with this solution that Muscogee is looking at,” he said. “… We’ve either been awarded or are in implementation in seven of the 10 largest metro areas in the U.S.”

Superior Court Chief Judge Gil McBride said the possible upgrade would address the courts’ record-keeping as well as case management needs. The project would involve purchasing software, loading it and then loading the data. It also would include training and ongoing support.

“Records management is being able to find deeds, scanning and storing documents diligently, being able to search for liens on a property and other records,” he explained. “Then there’s active case management, which we don’t have in Columbus at all.

“… If I ask right now for a printout of how many murder cases are assigned to each judge in our circuit, I cannot get it because we do not have a case management system,” he said. “If I ask the sheriff, I’ll get one record. If I ask the clerk, I’ll get another record. If I ask the district attorney, I’ll get a third different record. So what I have to do right now is print out these reports and then manually cross-reference them.

“That’s what case management does, it manages the cases,” he said. “… It, at least, tells you what you have, how old it is. You can program it for certain deadlines. … And we have none of that in Muscogee County, and it’s fairly standard in much of the state.”

In fact, Muscogee County is the only county within the six-county Chattahoochee Judicial Circuit that doesn’t have a case management system, he said.

“Columbus just continues to fall further and further behind with the technology,” he said. “The technology that we have is designed for what the caseload was 30 years ago when the technology was current.”

Hodge said Tyler is a highly-rated company for court management systems, and has worked well with the city in the past. She said reported problems in other counties don’t really concern her.

“I don’t know the specifics of that particular one, and in order to respond I would have to know what happened,” she said of the Alameda case. “But the implementation of a system that size is very complicated and it’s a long process, and it requires time, both from the company, Tyler, and from the municipality.

“ … You have to put forth effort on both ends to be successful in the implementation of a system of that size,” she added. “Whose fault was it? I don’t know. But that’s part of the process of implementation, to do a lot of checks and balances to make sure that the information that’s in the system is accurate and correct. That’s all part of system implementation.”

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