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Dallas County, Texas, Is Divided on Major Technology Project

A divided Dallas County Commissioners Court is once again tangling over its future with TechShare, a multi-county technology project that has already cost taxpayers tens of millions of dollars with little return.

(TNS) — A divided Dallas County, Texas, Commissioners Court is once again tangling over its future with TechShare, a multi-county technology project that has already cost taxpayers here tens of millions of dollars with little return.

In the latest glitch, commissioners suspend funding to contractors working on software that helps manage the jail delaying work for at least two weeks.

Commissioner J.J. Koch, the court’s lone Republican who represents most of northern Dallas, is worried the county is doomed to repeat its past mistakes by giving TechShare and other contractors more time and money for software that may never even launch.

The county previously sunk more than $30 million into a similar software project that was meant to help run the court system. That software was supposed to go live in 2015, but the county stopped paying for its development earlier this year after continually missed deadlines. The court has continued to use software developed in the 1980s.

The jail software is supposed to help sheriffs track inmates from booking to release. It stores everything from bonds to property to medical records. The software is projected to cost a fraction of what the county lost on the case-tracking system: So far, Dallas has paid TechShare $7 million for the jail software. And it has spent another $1.2 million on its project managers: Dallas-based Managing to Excellence and Ohio-based Sogeti USA.

According to county documents and interviews with TechShare leaders, the project is running well below budget by about $2 million.

But Koch sees red flags and wants the county to move on — or at least get more evidence that TechShare and other contractors are able to deliver software at a fair price and on time.

“There’s no way to build back trust,” Koch said. “It’s the same con.”

Meanwhile, Commissioner Theresa Daniel, a Democrat whose district runs from Swiss Avenue to Pleasant Grove, wants the county to give its blessing so TechShare can put the finishing touches on the program — which she and others say is nearly complete — and begin testing it and putting it into place at the jail.

"You talk about the 11th hour, plus 45 minutes,” she said. “We no longer have the staff for the last 15 minutes. It’s so incredibly short-sighted.”

The conflict over TechShare’s jail software program, which has been in development for 22 months, spilled out into public Tuesday when Koch yanked a vote on a contract extension for the two project management firms from the governing body’s agenda, catching Daniel and other commissioners by surprise.

Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins, a longtime critic of TechShare, and Commissioner Elba Garcia sided with Koch after Daniel pleaded with her colleagues to not stop the momentum of the program.

Daniel warned that not extending the contracts for Managing to Excellence and Sogeti USA would surely set the project back and flush millions more down the toilet.

Given a tight timeline, the decision not to vote on the contract effectively fired the two firms and their employees who were working with TechShare on behalf of Dallas County. Their work stopped Nov. 5 and will not resume until the commissioners revisit the subject later this month.

Koch sees it already as money wasted and hopes to start from scratch.

“Is it going to potentially delay things? Yes,” he said. “But it’s potentially delaying the thing that’s really really -- like everything points to this is gonna suck, and it’s going to be super flawed; it’s going to take a long time.”

TechShare’s History

Dallas County’s relationship with TechShare stretches nearly a decade.

TechShare was created by the Council of Urban Counties, a multi-county association based in Austin, in 2004 in an effort to help counties manage their criminal justice records that would both meet statewide standards and local needs.

In 2012, Dallas County agreed to help fund the development of software that would help judges track cases. Part of the pitch included the promise that Dallas County would make a return on its investment after TechShare sold the software to other counties. Dallas County has so far recouped $1 million from TechShare.

The plan was plagued by issues from the start. The developer hired by the council to create the software, American Cadastre, or AMCAD, went bankrupt in 2014. Then the multi-county association hired former AMCAD workers to finish the job.

But Travis County, which was an early co-signer, backed out after it was reported that the code was outdated. Shortly thereafter, Dallas County’s own chief information officer sounded the alarm.

And in 2015, the county’s 31 criminal court judges came out against TechShare’s case-tracking software. Delays also piled up because Dallas County officials continued to request more changes.

Former Dallas County Commissioner Mike Cantrell was an outspoken defender of TechShare, reasoning the county would save money in the long haul. He retired from the commissioners court Dec. 31. Nearly a year later, the court software is still months away from going live.

Earlier this year, Dallas County decided to stop funding any development for that case-tracking software and consequently lost sway over the future of the court technology. Something that has incensed Koch and other commissioners.

Not all of TechShare’s software has caused the sort of stress the court system has. Three other TechShare programs are operational in Dallas County. One is used by the prosecutor's office, another is used to manage juvenile cases and a third is used to help the courts manage indigent cases.

What Happens Next

Tarrant County Judge B. Glen Whitley, who also serves as the vice chairman of TechShare, said development of the jail software program is continuing and that Tarrant County will begin putting it into place soon.

“I was surprised Dallas chose not to approve the money for the beginning of the planning of implementation,” he said.

Whitley said he believes the program will be fully operational by December 2020.

It’s unclear what will happen next in Dallas County. County officials plan to address the court at its Nov. 19 meeting with a series of options that will include among other options moving forward with TechShare or purchasing off-the-shelf software.

Jenkins said he’s not ready to scrap everything, but is skeptical.

"Will it ultimately work? I hope it will,” he said.

One of his main concerns is that if Dallas moves forward, it will fall on the county’s budget to keep the software updated. He suggested that other counties in the state aren’t likely to buy into the jail program.

“It's obvious no one is going to be in the TechShare program except Dallas and Tarrant,” he said. “It won't save us money. It will cost us money."

Whitley dismissed the idea that TechShare was doomed to fail. He said TechShare’s other software programs used by prosecutors and juvenile detention facilities are running all over the state and in other parts of the country. The company is also in the early stages of shopping some of its programs to Cook County in Illinois.

"We’re not just going to walk away and let it die,” Whitley said. “I hope Dallas comes back to the program.”

©2019 The Dallas Morning News. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.