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Travis County, Texas, Starting Over on 20-Year Court Software Project

In reality, it was the latest chapter in a two-decade saga that has cost $11.4 million — and it’s not over.

(TNS) -- When the Travis County, Texas, commissioners in March abandoned a project to build a new software system for the criminal courts, it appeared to be the end of a four-year debacle that had cost taxpayers $3.3 million.

In reality, it was the latest chapter in a two-decade saga that has cost $11.4 million — and it’s not over.

The county must now start over on the project and is once more preparing to solicit bids for the courts segments of the Integrated Justice System, which was first envisioned in the mid-1990s. The last vendor, American Cadastre, or AmCad, left customers across the country high and dry when it abruptly announced in June that it was pulling out of the court software business and then went bankrupt in September.

“It’s people like AmCad that give government IT projects a bad name, to commit to do these projects and then just disappear,” county Chief Information Officer Tanya Acevedo said.

Commissioner Gerald Daugherty described the company, which started crumbling after the Oklahoma court system pulled the plug on a $13 million contract, as a “Ponzi scheme.”

But officials also admit the mess could have been avoided or the damage limited had the county handled the project differently.

AmCad was a relatively unproven vendor in court software. The county did not implement its usual contracting safeguards because the project was a collaboration with Dallas and Tarrant counties and the contract went through the nonprofit Conference of Urban Counties, not the Travis purchasing office. And the counties’ insistence that the software be tailored to and owned by the counties — as opposed to buying the rights to use existing software, as one competitor proposed — led them to choose a more expensive and complex option.

When the company foundered, two studies on the project found major deficiencies with the code that had been written. Despite those issues and Travis’ exit, the Conference of Urban Counties is plowing ahead and has 13 former AmCad employees working on contract to finish the software.

Cutting edge to catching up

When Travis County leaders first envisioned the system, it was a revolutionary idea. The software would seamlessly track offenders making their way through the court system — and through the many elected offices they encounter on the journey — from the moment they are arrested and jailed by sheriff’s deputies, to their court filings handled by the clerk’s office, to their trials before judges. A consultant hired by the county said it had never been done.

The county in 1997 hired IBM to do the $25 million job, with the firms Tiburon, Real World and AMA as subcontractors. In 1999, Tiburon finished the Interagency Database, a central hub for all electronic records in the system that is still used today.

Acevedo said the database and the central workings of the integrated system are a major success story for the county. Development of the segment for handling court records, however, has been plagued with delays and overruns. The upcoming bid will begin the county’s fourth attempt at the project.

The first sign of trouble came in 1999, when it was discovered that the software from AMA, the subcontractor tasked with the court system, could not be implemented without making $4 million to $6 million in modifications and updates.

“We have the choice to continue on AMA and keep pouring money into it and protect that original decision or make a better decision today,” said then-Chief Information Officer Joe Harlow, laying out an either/or scenario that would be echoed over the years.

In 2001, the county awarded a $4 million contract to Pacific Systems for its Fully Automated Court Tracking Software, or FACTS, which was then purchased by Tiburon. The project continuously fell behind schedule and went over budget, and the first segment did not come online until 2004.

In 2008, before it had finished installing FACTS in Travis County, Tiburon announced that it would be phasing out the product. The final segment came online in 2009, a bittersweet moment for the county, which had finally finished an Integrated Justice System but was already pursuing ways to replace it. The county uses the increasingly outdated but still functional FACTS system to this day.

Pulling the plug

Travis, Tarrant and Dallas counties teamed up in 2011 to solicit bids for a software system for criminal courts. Representing 20 percent of Texas’ population, the counties believed that collaborating would allow them to share costs and get a better product. The hard part was that the Conference of Urban Counties would have to coordinate among scores of elected judges, commissioners, clerks, sheriffs and prosecutors who would need to use the system.

There were three finalists: AmCad, Tyler Technologies and Sogeti. Sogeti’s $18.8 million pitch involved building a system from scratch that was perfectly tuned to the counties’ needs, Lee said. On the other end of the spectrum, Tyler’s $6.4 million bid offered little flexibility and would not allow the county to own the source code, but it had a long track record of successfully implementing it across the country. In the middle, Lee said, was AmCad, which had a core system that it could tailor to the Texas counties’ specific demands and turn over to them after development for a total of $11.8 million.

Travis and Dallas counties both scored AmCad’s bid highest. Tarrant picked Tyler. AmCad won the contract in September 2012.

The company was founded in 1986 and made its name in managing land records. In the past decade, it rapidly expanded its court software business, winning its first major contract in 2007 with the Arizona Administrative Office of the Courts and taking on projects from the U.S. Virgin Islands Superior Court to Medina County, Ohio.

The growth proved to be more than the firm could handle. A June 2014 email informed customers that it was exiting the court business because it wasn’t profitable. The Oklahoma courts’ decision to cancel a $13 million statewide project that had been falling behind schedule was the final straw.

The Conference of Urban Counties then commissioned an audit of the code that AmCad had produced and found major deficiencies. It recommended scrapping the code and replacing it altogether. Dallas County commissioned another study and found serious errors as well.

Don Lee, the conference’s president, said the audit found code that was outdated but not dysfunctional. He said the firm that conducted the audit might have recommended replacing the code so that it could bid on the project.

Citing the code analyses, Travis County Purchasing Agent Cyd Grimes in November recommended cutting the county’s losses at $3.3 million. Even if Travis followed through on the additional $4.7 million it was scheduled to contribute, the final product might not be an improvement over the FACTS system, she wrote.

“We may be taking an expensive step backwards, and then may be required to invest more money in the future simply to get us to the point where we are right now with customization as to Travis County workflow,” Grimes wrote.

©2015 Austin American-Statesman, Texas. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.