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Texas County Has Spent $26.6M on Software That Hasn’t Launched

When Tarrant County joined TechShare.Courts with other counties across the state, the idea was to sell the software to others. But that hasn’t come to fruition, with other counties pulling out as delays mount.

Software code overlayed over a closeup image of a computer keyboard.
(TNS) — Tarrant County taxpayers have spent $26.6 million on a courts software system since 2011, but the program still hasn’t gotten off the ground.

When Tarrant County joined TechShare.Courts with other counties across the state, the idea was to sell the software to others. But other counties have pulled out as bugs and delays mount, leaving Tarrant County as the only large county in Texas still spending money on the project.

Travis County pulled out in 2016 after spending $3.3 million. Dallas County gave up in 2020 after spending approximately $35 million.

And Tarrant County’s price tag continues to climb. Commissioners unanimously voted to put another $515,000 toward the program during a March 7 meeting, but agenda documents show that number could reach $6.3 million.

As the county moves toward its hopeful May 1 launch date, leaders are split on the best path forward. Those who have been with program from its start are determined to see it through. Newcomers to the commissioners court are prepared to explore other options.

Supporters are all of one frame of mind — they’re convinced the county has put too much money and time toward the TechShare.Courts to back out now.

Commissioner Alisa Simmons sees the county’s involvement and continual flow of money into the unlaunched program as an abuse of taxpayer funds. She has no basis to believe the program works.

“At what point do we stop dedicating taxpayer dollars to something that is not operational?” Simmons said. “When will you stop? You just won’t stop because you’ve already committed?”

TechShare.Courts’ statewide history

TechShare was created in 2004 by the Texas Conference of Urban Counties as a nonprofit collaborative run by county leaders so they could create their own criminal court software systems. It formed its board of directors in 2019, and former county judge Glen Whitley was one of its members.

All but one TechShare program has worked just fine for Tarrant County, Whitley told the Star-Telegram.

The exception: TechShare.Courts.

“Court has been our disaster,” Whitley said. “It’s been our albatross.”

Everything that could go wrong with the courts program went wrong, Whitley said. Trouble came in 2014 when TechShare’s vendor went bankrupt. Leaders discovered the program wasn’t working in 2019. Whitley also said that issues with Dallas County wanting to be the first to launch the program added to Tarrant County’s delay.

As problems continued to pop up, county officials considered switching to another program, but Whitley said that everyone he talked to wasn’t satisfied with that company’s results either. So they stuck with TechShare.

Whitley doesn’t remember when the first launch date was supposed to be and neither does county administrator G.K. Maenius, but after the delays, the program was expected to be complete October 2022, Whitley said. That date has since been pushed.

Tarrant County leaders had hoped to launch the program by New Year’s weekend, then the date was pushed to the end of January, Greg Shugart, Tarrant County’s criminal courts administrator, told the Dallas Morning News in January. County officials briefly discussed an April 1 launch date before deciding on May 1.

Dallas County also faced delays trying to launch its version of the program. The original 2016 launch date was moved to 2017, then 2018 as costs continued to balloon.

Dallas County failed to see results throughout its involvement in the program, Judge Clay Jenkins told the Star-Telegram. Travis County commissioners, too, voted unanimously to leave the program after seeing little results.

Then-county judge Sarah Eckhardt told the Austin American-Statesman at the time that while Travis had successfully rolled out other TechShare programs, the courts program was beyond repair.

The story is much the same in Tarrant County, where officials use TechShare programs for indigent defense and juvenile case management.

A representative for Eckhardt, now a Texas senator who represents Bastrop and Travis counties, did not return a request to interview with a Star-Telegram reporter about TechShare.Courts.

Representatives with the TechShare Local Government Corporation did not return an email request for comment.

Whitley said the county is getting to a point where it has something to market and that the county could have a good program if it comes up with a marketing plan and the courts program is stabilized.

County clerks support launch

Tarrant County Clerk Mary Louise Nicholson and District Clerk Tom Wilder have overseen TechShare.Courts’ rollout.

Assuming the program launches May 1, the county won’t need to spend any more money on it, Wilder said.

He and Nicholson are adamant about moving forward even if the launch date has to be pushed again.

“We have enough in this and we’re close enough that I would advocate that we finish,” Wilder said in an interview with the Star-Telegram. “But I mean, you know, we’re not talking about years, we’re talking about months now. I mean, we’re down, right down to where we’ve got a project.”

Maenius said starting over with a new software program would just mean more money in the hole for Tarrant County.

“We have not been able to find any software on the market that is as comprehensive as TechShare.Courts,” he said.

When asked what specific issues have prevented the county from launching, Wilder said staff keep finding bugs as they test the software.

“That’s what the process is for, to smoke out the bugs before we go live,” Wilder said.

Two separate reviews of the TechShare’s source code commissioned by Dallas County and the Texas Conference of Urban Counties found errors too, the Austin American-Statesman reported. The review for the Conference of Urban Counties recommended rewriting the code.

Maenius said TechShare.Courts’ code is being rewritten in Tarrant County.

“The software is really going to be good,” Maenius said.

He added that the county’s jail software through TechShare is among the best in the country and that 34 agencies use the county’s prosecutor software through TechShare.

Nicholson directed a reporter to email questions when approached by the Star-Telegram following a county commissioners meeting.

Asked how many tickets were open with TechShare.Courts, Nicholson said tickets tracked work of individual developers and did not equate to an issue or bug.

“Unfortunately, it is not an accurate measuring tool to provide information about ‘how much work is actually left,’” she wrote, before adding that tickets are being closed as quickly as they are being opened.

Maenius also did not know how many tickets were open with the program. He said some tickets could remain open when the county launches TechShare.Courts.

In response to a question about what happens if the county has to push TechShare.Courts’ launch date again. Nicholson wrote that she has every expectation the county will meet its May 1 deadline.

And when asked at what point county officials should consider a different path, Nicholson wrote that other TechShare programs the county used were operational.

“I have no reason to believe we need to pursue a different route,” she wrote.

Commissioners split on path forward

As the new commissioners settle into their tenures on the court, they have charged ahead with a goal to save taxpayers money. In their first two months in office, the new court denied requests for a mail sorter at the election’s office and travel requests for county employees for the sake of savings.

Where TechShare.Courts stands on the list of potential money saving efforts is unclear.

Longtime commissioners don’t see the sense in leaving the program after working at and delegating funds toward the program for so long. New commissioners, though, are open to exploring other options.

Every time commissioner Simmons sees an item on TechShare on the agenda, she makes sure to bring it up for a discussion.

“The continued line of reasoning is, ‘We’re so far into it and it’s going to work,’ with no proof of ‘It’s going to work,’” she said. “It sounds like it’s a hope and a prayer.”

The county has received no benefits from its involvement, Simmons said, and if the county did sell software, she doesn’t believe the county would be able to recuperate lost funds from what likely would be sales to smaller counties.

Despite delays and bumps in the road, including the COVID-19 pandemic, commissioner Roy Charles Brooks said he was confident TechShare.Courts was days, if not weeks, away from being launched.

He was not concerned about other counties leaving the program.

“We are much too far in now to cut and run,” Brooks said. “That would be foolish. We’ve got to finish the project. We’ve got to implement it.”

Commissioner Gary Fickes is on the same page. If the program isn’t ready on May 1, he said, then the county would wait until May 2.

“I don’t think turning tail and running away is the answer,” Fickes said. “And I think we’ve pretty much bought into this and gone through the good and the bad and the good. I think at this point, you know, we need to move forward.”

Fickes hoped that once the county launched the program officials could bring more partners in on the program to help offset the costs spent.

“It’s not time to ring the fire bell and run out the door,” Fickes said. “That’s the last thing we need to do right now.”

Commissioner Manny Ramirez said it was in everyone’s best interest to have efficient and effective technology to run the courts and criminal justice system. He thinks the county should do everything it can to make sure it builds fiscally responsible systems.

When asked how efficient is was to spend $26.6 million on a program that has yet to launch, Ramirez said he didn’t believe in a sunk cost fallacy but that if the best way to maximize taxpayer dollars is to seek another option, that’s the route the county should explore.

“You’re right, not having an operational system after spending $25 million is unacceptable,” Ramirez said. “So we have to do whatever we can to make sure that the system is working for the citizens of Tarrant County.”

County judge Tim O’Hare has been one of the largest proponents on the new commissioners court of saving the county money. His wishes include establishing a homestead exemption and slashing the property tax rate by 20%.

Spokespeople for O’Hare did not directly respond to written questions and two more requests for comment from the Star-Telegram regarding Tarrant County’s involvement in TechShare.

“Judge O’Hare may have additional thoughts on TechShare soon as the budgeting process starts,” one spokesperson wrote in an email.

County officials will discuss TechShare.Courts at the April 18 commissioners meeting.

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