Clarke County’s Joint Administrative Services committee met on Monday to continue deliberations on whether or not to upgrade the county’s aging software and hardware systems. As support for at least one major component of its information technology infrastructure is discontinued in August, the county’s ability to continue automated operations will receive potential set-back in it capability to service to Clarke County citizens.
Clarke County treasurer Sharon E Keeler told the Joint Administrative Services committee that her department’s computer server, an AS/400 mini-computer, will no longer be supported by the manufacturer, IBM, as of August, 2011.
“The software will continue to run but the server itself is no longer supported” Keeler said.
As treasurer, Keeler is responsible for all activities related to the receipt, deposit, investment, reconciliation, and disbursement of county funds, all of which revolve around the proper use of government accounting practices. Keeler’s AS/400 mini-computer, and associated software, is a critical component in ensuring that the public funds entrusted to the treasurer’s care are monitored in a fiscally responsible manner.
While discontinuance of support by IBM does not mean that the AS/400 computer will stop working, it does mean that future maintenance and repairs will begin to become both more difficult and expensive as third-party vendors seek to financially exploit AS/400 customers who are either unwilling or unable to switch to a modern computing system and can no longer rely on IBM for support.
Clarke County’s looming computer hardware obsolescence is just one aspect of a larger software/hardware overhaul that the JAS committee is attempting to unravel. The big issue for the group is how to resolve a $1M+ potential price tag for a new system versus living with continued inefficiencies caused by outdated hardware and software.
As the county tries to sort its way through the issues associated with selecting an integrated enterprise resource planning solution, also known as ERP, JAS director Tom Judge is working to locate other local governments of similar size to Clarke that have already taken the ERP leap so that county officials can get a first-hand look at ERP’s benefits and costs to a small community.
However, the high cost and complexity of implementing ERP may make Judge’s challenge difficult.
“Isle of Wight county has implemented an ERP system but they are about double the size of Clarke” Judge told the JAS committee. “They also haven’t implemented all of the ERP modules yet.”
Clarke County Board of Supervisors chairman and JAS committee member Michael Hobert (Berryville) suggested that Judge widen his search to include counties that have implemented a “best-of-breed” solution by self-integrating hardware and software solutions purchased from various vendors, as part of the potential site-visit approach.
“Gloucester County has used an interesting approach” Judge said in response to Hobert’s best-of-breed suggestion. “They are open to whatever application that a department wants to use so long as the data from the application can be integrated with its central data repository.”
Other assistance may come from the next county to Clarke’s east.
Loudoun County, though much larger, potentially may provide some of the guidance that Clarke needs by both example and staff assistance.
Judge said that Loudoun recently issued a request-for-proposal to purchase its own ERP solution and is awaiting responses from vendors. Although Loudoun may require a more robust software solution to meet higher transaction levels, Judge said that the business practices being automated are not much different from Clarke County’s.
“Loudoun County’s requirements are very similar other than scale” Judge said.
Loudoun County’s other potential contribution is that its information technology director, Gene Troxell, is a Clarke County resident.
“I’ve spoken to Gene in the past and I’ll try and schedule a time to speak with him to see if he will offer us the benefit of his experience” Judge said.
A fundamental consideration with any software purchase is whether to customize the functions and features of a product to conform to an organization’s existing approach or to change local processes to meet the “best practices” already modeled in the software. However, a recently delivered Government Finance Officer Association consulting report on ERP for Clarke cautioned that asking any organization’s staff to change their approach to doing tasks can present challenges.
“I think that a site visit is the way to go” said JAS chairman Emily Rhodes. “But after having seen our business practices I’m not really sure that we would have much internal resistance. Our processes are pretty archaic.”
However, Michael Hobert appeared unready, just yet anyway, to schedule a site visit much less discuss possible RFP language.
“We need to take a step back and look at best practices in government and decide if we want to use an ERP template and adjust our practices to it” Hobert said. “We also need to evaluate cloud computing solutions which may potentially offer a better path for smaller entities like ours.”
Hobert, as in previous meetings on the subject of ERP, again questioned whether the county had a clear understanding of the true costs associated with purchasing and implementing an ERP solution.
“I personally believe that the budget is too ambiguous for me to take to the Board of Supervisors” Hobert said. “I also do not believe that the hardware costs are clear. This all needs to be clarified before a budget can be presented to the School Board and the Board of Supervisors. ”
Recognizing the potential complexity and cost that ERP may inject at a time of government belt-tightening in Clarke County, Hobert said that he plans to contact Virginia Assembly Delegate Joe May to see if the Commonwealth of Virginia might offer Clarke, and other small counties facing similar technology pressures, assistance with the ERP selection process.
“I’d like to explore what the state of Virginia can do to help small and mid-sized governments with this problem” Hobert said. “It would be helpful if the state had a contract with approved vendors that could address these issues so that small communities like ours aren’t required to reinvent the wheel.”
But while the Joint Administrative Services committee attempts to develop its software strategy, the clock is ticking on Treasurer Sharon Keeler’s finance server.
IBM’s price to upgrade Clarke County’s AS/400 to a new I-Series model is $26K.