Hard Words for Software

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The new system, designed from scratch at the order of the district's director, replaces badly outdated, keyboard-driven monochrome terminals with a mouse-driven program resembling common Windows applications.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.

"Harris County comes to Dallas and has for the last 10 years regularly to learn how to do things," Mitchell says. "When you hold them up as an example, you are just--let's try to be tactful about this...I'm not impressed with what they claim they've done if that's in fact what they said."

Right now, employees in Dallas aren't much impressed either. Employees are working staggered shifts to avoid overloading the system, and their time-sensitive work is piling up while they wait for their computers to respond, several say. Employees, who say they will be fired if they are identified as having talked to the media, are even reportedly agreeing to taxpayer protests concerning property values because they don't trust the system's data when it does appear.

Says one employee: "How poorly does it perform? Clerks are getting logged off because their sessions are taking too long. Appraisers that normally have completed a couple thousand appraisals at this point have only completed a few dozen. And it's not just the processing. I hear that there is such a concern for the appraisal values that appraisers are being directed to accept the values that taxpayer representatives push for in the protest hearings."

Another current employee says: "They are trying some quick fixes that might get the rolls out, but it's quite possible that we won't certify, and if we don't, all hell will break loose because that will mean taxing entities won't have up-to-date tax rolls. There's a lot of value that won't be on the tax rolls."

The appraisal district has the responsibility for annually certifying property values for local governments in the county.

Nolan defends the new system and says field equipment won't need to be proven working until the summer when the new appraisal season starts. He says there are no major problems with MARS, but the system shakedown will be a continuing process for the next year or so.

"It'll take a period of probably a year in the field to go through all of the things either we didn't think of the first time around or things could be done a little bit differently just as it did in 1982. But we're perfectly satisfied. We've got exactly what we asked for."

Mitchell, too, does not deny that the system is slow but says appraisers have stayed caught up with the work and that any difficulties were long anticipated. He says that employees were pitching in with ideas and that the solution to the problem with computer speed will be corrected by May 1.

"We're going to finish our work, put our notices in the mail on time. Our concern is getting through the appraisal review board process when we have lots of property owners coming in. We have time to resolve this problem," he says. "I'm sure you are interested in this because it looks like to you, from what you've heard, the story is one way, but not everybody in government is a crook...People sometimes think that government officials are not as honest or truthful or forthcoming as they should be. It's not always that way."

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Charles Siderius
Contact: Charles Siderius

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