After missed deadlines and ballooning costs, Dallas County is taking a step back from a project aimed at developing and implementing court case-tracking software.
(TNS) — Dallas County in 2012 embarked on a new venture: development of a case-tracking software that could be used in any Texas criminal court — and could be sold to other counties.
To split the $16.7 million bill, the county partnered with Tarrant and Travis counties.
The system was supposed to go live by 2015. But the Texas Conference of Urban Counties, or CUC — the nonprofit at the helm of the project — missed that deadline after its software developer left the business. Then came another missed deadline. And another.
Now — after more than six years of extensions, objections from judges and at least $26 million of taxpayer money — Dallas County is suspending payments toward the still-unfinished courthouse program.
The “pause,” as officials have called it, is supposed to last until September. If CUC hasn’t launched the software in Tarrant County by then, some Dallas County commissioners have threatened a vote to pull the plug for good.
“Every single deadline has been missed, and if that doesn’t give you any pause — it’s been giving me pause for seven years,” said Commissioner Elba Garcia.
CUC says the county’s requests for customization are partly to blame for the delays. But another missed deadline might spur Dallas County to end the years-long saga marked by a corporate bankruptcy, arguments on the commissioners’ dais and a plea from criminal court judges to ditch the program.
The future is still uncertain. On Tuesday, the Commissioners Court was scheduled to vote on a $495,000 contract to hire a consultant who would help officials determine the “viability” of completing the software. The decision was postponed at the request of county staff.
Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins said the agreement with CUC to pause payments doesn’t preclude the county from considering other options before September.
Tarrant County officials are more optimistic about the program’s future — the administrator there said last week he’s confident the software will be in place by the fall.
Jenkins said he hopes for a similar happy ending for Dallas County.
“Nobody wants this to work more than I do,” Jenkins said. “Nobody wants me to be wrong more than I do because we’ve sunk a lot of money in this.”
On its website, CUC touts its TechShare initiative as a way for counties to “control their destiny.” The idea is that counties can band together to share software development costs and recoup some of their investment by selling the system to other counties.
For example, a basic version of the juvenile case management system that Dallas County pioneered is now used by most counties in Texas.
The software for the criminal courts, known as the TechShare.Court project, would help judges manage every aspect of a case — from the time a defendant is booked into jail through sentencing. Currently, judges and clerks have to check different systems depending on whether they need to pull up a court setting, bond information or a legal filing.
TechShare.Court, which began in late 2012, stumbled in its early days. American Cadastre or AMCAD — the developer hired by CUC — went bankrupt in 2014. Left with incomplete code, CUC hired former workers from the company to finish the job.
An analysis commissioned by CUC in 2014 described the code as outdated and inefficient, the Austin American-Statesman reported at the time. Travis County walked away from the project the next year after spending $3.3 million.
Dallas County officials also raised concerns. The county’s chief information officer, Stanley Victrum, wrote in a confidential 2014 memo, which was obtained by The Dallas Morning News, that the county should pursue a “more cost effective and sustainable” option.
Victrum cited a $6.7 million cost estimate from the software provider of the county’s civil courts, Tyler Technologies, to provide a case-tracking system for the criminal courts.
Tyler Technologies had bid for the CUC criminal courts project. Dahill said he wasn’t authorized to disclose the company’s estimate.
Judges also opposed moving forward. In a rare display of unity, all 31 criminal court judges in Dallas County came out against the TechShare case-tracking software in 2015. They, too, said they preferred Tyler Technologies, whose Odyssey software is used by neighboring counties. The judges complained in a letter that the TechShare software they tested didn't seem finished and that it didn't meet their needs.
The deadline to go live in Dallas County shifted to 2016. Then to 2017. And then 2018. The budget grew to more than $22 million.
CUC Executive Director John Dahill said in response to emailed questions that Dallas County staff requested development work beyond what had been identified as the initial “implementable version” of the software.
For example, Dahill said, Dallas County commissioners approved a plan last fall with 21 requirements to “go live” that had been defined by CUC together with county staff. But after that vote, county personnel produced a list of 612 new items for CUC to analyze, he said.
“Custom software development can be challenging,” Dahill wrote. “And one of the most difficult aspects — especially when there is a large number of stakeholders in varying roles — is determining the limits of the initial version of the software to be implemented, versus additional functionality to be developed over time.”
Mike Cantrell fiercely defended the software during his tenure as a county commissioner, which ended Dec. 31. Cantrell said that as owners of the program, the counties would avoid paying an outside vendor to upgrade and maintain it. He dismissed criticisms about missed deadlines.
“Everybody acts like, oh, this is so unique, and it shouldn’t be happening. Baloney,” Cantrell said in a 2017 public meeting. “It happens in every single IT project that you have.”
Commissioner Theresa Daniel, head of the county’s information technology committee, said she continues to back TechShare.Court despite the delays.
“Anyone’s who’s worked in any software development project — I’m not aware of anyone that knew exactly what they could expect when they got into the development of it,” she said.
Daniel said her support for TechShare is grounded in the success of its juvenile case management system and another software tailored for prosecutors. Those two systems debuted in Dallas County years ago and are used in many places around the state.
But Craig Morrissey, who is leading the TechShare.Court project in the county's IT department, told commissioners two years ago that programmers faced challenges as they tried to create the new software for court operations that were not consistent from court to court.
The county set June 2018 as the new target date.
“We can sustain this project schedule without a problem,” Morrissey told commissioners.
But last fall, the project wasn’t ready, and county staff asked commissioners to approve an extra $1.5 million. Cantrell, Daniel and Commissioner John Wiley Price signed off on the payment. A March deadline emerged.
“If this is what they need to complete it, we owe them that,” County Clerk John Warren told commissioners in September. “Because otherwise we’re going to start all over again.”
But in November, J.J. Koch, who campaigned against the software, won an election for Cantrell’s open seat. That meant detractors now outnumbered the TechShare.Court supporters on the Commissioners Court.
Koch said the county is “essentially being held hostage” by CUC.
“We have taken CUC’s word for it in so many respects far too much,” Koch said. “And it has cost us dearly.”
The new Commissioners Court rejected a $1.4 million maintenance and operations payment for the case-tracking software with a 4-1 vote. Daniel was the lone dissenter.
In early February, Warren told county officials in a letter that employees in his office and the district clerk’s office had stopped working on the software. A briefing from CUC to publicly discuss its progress was scheduled for Feb. 5. But then it was canceled.
Tarrant County Judge B. Glen Whitley asked to discuss the project with Jenkins and Garcia on Jan. 31, according to officials. Dahill said Whitley was already scheduled to meet with the Dallas County officials on another matter and invited the CUC leader to join.
Dahill said CUC didn’t cancel the public briefing. He wrote in an email that he informed Dallas County staff of the discussion with Jenkins and Garcia, and “there was general agreement that there was no longer a need for a presentation to the Commissioners Court.”
Jenkins said CUC blamed the latest TechShare.Court delay on a Dallas County employee he didn’t publicly identify.
“They claimed the employee’s request for them to fix problems with the program as it was being developed was making them late in being able to meet their obligations,” the county judge said in a Commissioners Court meeting.
But Dahill said he didn’t attribute the delays solely to Dallas County personnel’s requests for new requirements. He listed “complicating factors,” such as the integration to the county’s other software systems and departures of key staff and participants.
“There are things both parties could have done to move this project forward in a better manner,” Dahill wrote. “Upon successful implementation in Tarrant County, we believe that Dallas County will continue with the relatively small amount of work necessary to successfully implement TechShare.Court.”
Tarrant County Administrator G.K. Maenius said the software there is “fairly complete” and that the final product will be “something that truly fits Texas counties.” The county has either spent or budgeted $17.6 million for the project, he said.
In Dallas County, the expenses total about $30 million if it also includes money to pay internal staff and contractors tied to the project, officials said.
Commissioners are expected to return to Jenkins’ proposal to hire a consultant who can advise the county on how to proceed with the courthouse software.
Price, who has supported the project in the past, said the suggestion was reasonable.
“You’re still being told the same thing, and you haven’t been given any real product,” Price said. “At some point in time you have to say, hey, let’s pump the brakes and make an assessment.”
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