Under a collaboration scheme, Dallas County, Texas, has effectively lost all control over a court-case tracking software project that has already cost taxpayers $30 million with nothing to show for it, commissioners say.
(TNS) — Dallas County, Texas, has effectively lost all control over a court-case tracking software project that has already cost taxpayers $30 million with nothing to show for it, commissioners say.
The commissioners said at Tuesday’s meeting they were blindsided to learn in April that their decision to pause spending on the TechShare.Court program means they ceded control of it, as well as existing software programs the county uses to manage juvenile cases and others.
Commissioner J.J. Koch gave a presentation at Tuesday's meeting about how the county's voting strength was diluted. The result is that Tarrant County is now fully in charge of all TechShare decisions, he said.
Now, officials in North Texas' two biggest counties are locked in a power struggle over the costly project.
The Texas Conference of Urban Counties established TechShare in 2004 as a way to help counties collaborate to build tech solutions.
The counties recently decided to move TechShare under a semi-independent entity known as a local government corporation. Under the LGC, each county receives apportioned voting strength based on how much capital costs it has paid toward TechShare's programs, such as the unfinished courts software and the existing juvenile case management system.
But Dallas County decided earlier this year to suspend payments toward the unfinished court software. By then, the project had gone millions of dollars over budget after years of missed deadlines.
At an April 17 meeting of the new body governing how counties steer TechShare projects, Koch said he along with fellow Commissioner Theresa Daniel and County Administrator Darryl Martin were "completely caught off guard" when they learned Dallas County now has only 25 percent voting strength in the TechShare LGC.
Tarrant County, meanwhile, has 63 percent of the vote. Collin, Denton, Johnson, Midland, Potter and Travis counties each have 2 percent voting strength.
"In moving to this LGC, the new body, we have given complete control over TechShare to [Tarrant County] Judge Glen Whitley," Koch said.
Dallas County officials and Whitley are at odds over whether can Dallas remain an active participant in the courts project. If the county isn't deemed active, then the money it has already spent toward the courts software doesn't count toward voting power.
Dallas County officials say they still consider themselves active participants in the TechShare.Court project; they’ve put millions toward the program, and the county hasn't pulled out of it completely.
But Whitley said Dallas County isn't "active" because it skipped a $600,000 payment for operation and maintenance costs. That means Dallas County's capital payment for TechShare.Court doesn't count toward its voting strength, Whitley said.
Dallas County's 25 percent voting strength is based on the premise that the county has contributed $6.5 million to TechShare projects that the county is actively participating in, according to Koch's presentation. But the county's $10 million expenditures in capital costs for the courts software aren't included in that calculation.
If that money was added, Dallas' voting strength would increase considerably, but it's unclear by exactly how much.
Commissioner John Wiley Price believes Dallas is getting shorted either way. He asked during Tuesday's meeting how $30 million — the figure commissioners and county staff repeatedly cited as the total cost of the courts software so far — could have "evaporated" from the calculations.
Whitley said that the $30 million figure includes "implementation" costs, which don't count toward voting strength.
He faulted Dallas County for racking up those costs because it kept changing its goals for the courts software.
"I know that they paid a lot of money," Whitley said. "The frustrating part was that they kept changing what was being requested ... There was a continuous changing of what was requested or things were added or things were changed, so everybody was frustrated."
Because of the costs and delays, Dallas County in March hired outside consultants to analyze the project.
But Whitley's Dallas County counterpart, Judge Clay Jenkins, said TechShare leadership, including LGC executive director John Dahill, has declined to meet or speak with the consultants.
Jenkins said the consultants tried to get information from the LGC and Whitley but faced "some concern that the information would be used against Mr. Dahill and others," he said.
Dahill declined to comment for this story.
Now, Dallas County faces questions about a path forward. Whitley, in Tarrant County, said if Dallas County leaders want to increase the county's voting strength by becoming an active participant in the courts project, they have a simple solution: pay the $600,000 they owe in operation and maintenance costs.
But Koch, who questioned the TechShare project during his campaign last year, said Dallas County is now in a game it can't win. He called Whitley a "ruthless manipulator" who could easily cut Dallas County out of the products for which it has paid millions.
“We paid our ticket, we deserve a ride,” Koch said. “Because that $30 million has been taken off of our score sheet, we are now completely held hostage by Judge Whitley and whatever he wants to do.”
Koch said the commissioners court is no longer on a "wait-and-see" path with TechShare, though they haven't officially decided on a plan of action. He said Whitley is "someone who's willing to manipulate and willing to act aggressively."
"We have to start to protect our interests," Koch said.
Whitley said Koch's characterization is unfair. If Tarrant County was trying to manipulate Dallas County, Whitley said, then Dallas County's representative on the TechShare LGC, Commissioner Daniel, could have voted against the LGC's bylaws. But she didn't.
Daniel did not respond to a request for comment.
Whitley said the voting strength issue was not meant to be "punitive toward Dallas."
"This is the way we've always done it," Whitley said.
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