Supervisors Growing Tired of IT Cost Overruns, Excuses

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Wednesday, February 16, 2010 | “Unforseen complexities.”

Those were the words used by the Orange County Auditor/Controller to describe yet another cost overrun in the county’s sprawling computer infrastructure at last week’s regular meeting of the Orange County Supervisors.

This particular request was for another $225,000 for an overhaul of the county’s accounting software, bringing the total contract for the company called CGI-AMS to a total of $472,000.

And what may seem like another blown deadline isn’t, according to the IT gurus. The project was just “rebaselined,” which means the deadlines were just extended.

Yet, these answers weren’t good enough for Supervisor Pat Bates, who decided last week to voice from the dais frustrations that have long simmered on the board.

“If I had to stand before a group of constituents in a candidate forum and answer why we spent these multimillion dollars on a system that continued to be re-baselined, I could not explain it,” said County Supervisor Pat Bates.

It was a rare sight, an elected official calling for a timeout, announcing that the bureaucracy had gone so far afield that they couldn’t tell what they’re approving anymore.

“I was just really impressed with her willingness to step forward and say that,” said Supervisor Shawn Nelson this week after supporting Bates at last week’s meeting. “Being a leader means a lot of things. Sometimes it means stop.”

Nelson and other supervisors publicly supported Bates call for a timeout. She has asked that the entire computer upgrade be brought back in one package, on March 15 — the ides of March — for a final vote…and a final deadline.

Upgrades to aging property tax and payroll systems have been in the works for much of the past decade across many Southern California counties.

While Auditor/Controller David Sundstrom told supervisors this week that Orange County isn’t as bad as other counties, things have been particularly messy in recent years.

Numerous audits from the county performance auditor have criticized the county’s IT infrastructure and vendor contracts. One recent study identified more than $45 million in no-bid contracts. And this month, the county’s IT chief quietly retired under myriad questions about missed deadlines and contract overruns. Outgoing IT head Satish Ajmani is the second IT guru to leave the county under questionable circumstances.

The current review isn’t the first time that county supervisors have attempted to understand how IT is working at the county. In 2006, when then-Supervisor (now State Senator) Lou Correa was elected to the board of supervisors, he initiated a task force to examine IT issues.

That panel was quietly dismantled.

OC labor officials have issued a slew of stinging criticism over IT issues in recent years, calling on supervisors to get a better understanding of the massive spending.

“Tens of millions of dollars have already been wasted on these massive IT projects, and deadlines have been repeatedly missed,” said Jennifer Muir, Communications Director for the Orange County Employees Association.

The current panel is aimed at a much more plain task. County Supervisors John Moorlach and Bill Campbell will simply report back explaining in English what the county’s computer upgrades aim to do, how much the whole thing is costing and when it will be done.

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