Hard Words for Software

DCAD spends $5.5 million developing its own computer program. Why?

Last month, the Dallas Central Appraisal District proudly announced that its new self-designed "state-of-the-art mass appraisal system," known as MARS, was finally running. It had been a four-year effort to update the district's systems that had cost upward of $5.5 million. Officials say the system is nearly at full speed and is fantastic.

Unfortunately, some of the people who use the system disagree. What officials didn't announce is that the MARS system may work, but it's slow and appraisers are falling behind in their work, according to current and former employees. It was also expensive to create, leading some employees to question the decision to compete in the private sector with other software developers.

The new system, designed from scratch at the order of the district's director, replaces badly outdated, keyboard-driven monochrome terminals with a mouse-driven program resembling common Windows applications. Appraisers were supposed to be able to go out into the field with "pen-based tablets" that could provide on-site property information. Back at the office, appraisers were supposed to be able to easily add new information and update property values.

The system went on line five months behind schedule but looks great on the computer screen and is "doing everything it's supposed to be doing," says Ken Nolan, director of technical services at the district.

But, according to existing and former appraisal district employees, the homegrown, overdue software has so many problems and bugs that it's not accurate to say it's functioning. Nor are they confident it will carry this tax year's workload. They also question the wisdom of a government agency becoming a software developer and going head-to-head with the private sector.

Why, they ask, would the district decide to spend millions to pay a private company to design a software program from scratch when proven appraisal systems are already available and working for very large districts similar to Dallas?

On the surface, at least, they seem to have a good point. In the Houston area, the Harris County Appraisal District was using a terminal and mainframe system just like the one in Dallas and needed a similar upgrade. But, two years ago, at the behest of its in-house technology experts, the Houston district decided to look to the private sector. They ended up paying a Florida-based vendor to upgrade their system.

Glenn Traylor, information systems director for the Harris County district, says he's "very familiar" with Dallas' "plight."

"I mean, they went through a lot of pain to get where they are," he says.

In Houston, the district signed a contract with Software Techniques Inc. in February 2002. The upgrade to an existing commercial software package will be done by July at a cost of less than $2 million, he says.

"Dallas and I have kind of been in the same boat for many years," Traylor says. "We've both taken different avenues to get to the new world."

Larry Zirbel, president of Software Techniques, based in Winter Park, Florida, says his company's software was tested over "many years" in big jurisdictions such as in Tampa and now in Harris County. It's proven and actually does far more right now than what the Dallas package promises to do, including employing handheld devices and all of the other features the Dallas system will someday use. What's more, he says, his company's software is in its third version, not its first, and that means many of the bugs are already worked out.

As for the much higher cost of the Dallas system compared with an "off the shelf" system, Dallas Appraisal District Executive Director Foy Mitchell Jr. says the Dallas Central Appraisal District will own the marketing and licensing rights and will offer it for sale to other Texas districts. Every penny of the money from those sales and any licensing will be returned to the district, he says.

For Zirbel, this is another issue with the Dallas project. By developing its own software, is Dallas now going to use taxpayer dollars to compete with the private sector?

"I can't compete against a government agency that decides to become a software vendor. They can afford more marketing and sales than we can ever afford because they don't have a profit responsibility to contend with," he says. "Questions will arise as to whether or not he's obligated to give the software away because it's paid for with taxpayer dollars...If they give it away under an interagency agreement, then effectively the taxpayers of Dallas appraisal district are funding the [software] development for the rest of Texas. If I lived in Dallas, I'm not sure I'd be too pleased with that."

What's more, he asks, if Dallas is going to compete, will the district be forced to act like a private software developer, providing customer support and continuing to upgrade the product every three years or so?

"If Dallas stops implementing new features in their application today and spends not a penny more, their system will be completely obsolete in three years and will have to be replaced," Zirbel says. Mitchell does not agree with that assessment. He says the Harris County system is not even close to what he has developed for Dallas and that no vendor has anything like it. In fact, he says Harris County Appraisal District officials have tried to learn from Dallas. Vendors, he says, are threatened by what the Dallas Central Appraisal District has done.

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