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No pain, no gain: County adjusting to computer upgrades

LAWRENCEVILLE - Four days in one week, Danny Porter's assistant went home in tears.

The district attorney said Gwinnett's new financial software is making life difficult for his staff and for vendors, but county officials say the computer is changing the way the county is doing business - for the better.

It gives departments more responsibility when it comes to purchasing supplies, but with that comes more accountability, Finance Director Lisa Johnsa said.

She felt the pain herself back in 1989 when the county last updated its technology.

Johnsa was working in the tax commissioner's office at the time, when the county went from manually typing in every invoice to working on an IBM mainframe system.

Then, the department directors couldn't even check the budget to see if they had enough money to make a purchase.

"With more knowledge comes responsibility," Johnsa said. "It was extremely painful."

And that proves just as true in this conversion to a server-based system, she added.

"Just the fact you've changed somebody's screen impacts them," she said.

The upgrades

After more than three years of work, the county has converted to a new tax system, customer relations management system, financial system and human resources/payroll.

Next year, the water and sewer billing system will come online.

It cost the county about $27 million this year in software, training and professional services.

Hardware changes came in at $1.5 million. Earlier this month, commissioners OK'd a software support contract with SAP, which produced the financial, payroll and customer relations software, and Manatron, which produced the tax system, for $828,217.56 for maintenance and software support in 2006 alone. Support Services Director Connie Hinson said that price is likely to go up over the years.

Johnsa said the county had annual licensing and maintenance agreements for the past systems as well.

While the numbers are high, Johnsa said that is the price that people have to pay for computer upgrades these days - especially after more than 15 years on an antiquated system.

Other governments have gone through similar growing pains. Many, Johnsa said, decided to upgrade just prior to 2000 to take care of the Y2K bug, which later proved to be unproblematic.

Instead of rushing, Gwinnett decided to impose the necessary safeguards on its own system and study the system conversion.

Money was set aside in the county's Capital Improvements Program, and Johnsa said so far the upgrades have come in at the same amount of the original contract.

But that doesn't mean there haven't been problems, she said.

The problems

Porter said the computer conversion has kept his staff from performing their intended purpose of prosecuting criminals.

"I have people spending more time on the computer, not less," Porter said.

His office uses the system to buy office supplies and pay subscription costs for legal research.

Porter said those payments have been delayed because of the system, and he has faced threats of the cancellation of legal services.

"You scramble around and get them paid," he said. "No one really knows how to use the system. ... My office manager has been submerged in this to the point she can't do anything else."

Johnsa said any bills that came in late were because of human error in entering information into the system or the usual haggling between the vendor and the purchaser.

According to information from the financial services department, 709 invoices were posted within the first two weeks of the system conversion. In the first full month 4,914 bills were posted, but in November that number was 7,447.

"We started slow," Johnsa said.

Chuck Huckleberry, who is Johnsa's deputy, said bills sometimes weren't paid on time under the old system.

After all, back then, the invoices could sit on desks within departments while the finance department had no idea of their existence, he said.

Now, the computer automatically pays the bills - either by issuing a check or electronic transfer.

Under the Advantage system, which was replaced by SAP in mid-April, the county averaged 1,427 payments of $8,459,460 each week. Under SAP, the weekly average is 1,269 payments totalling $9.7 million.

Treasury Division Rhonda Etheridge said the lower weekly average of disbursements likely is a result of officials encouraging more use of procurement cards, which can be used for certain purchases of less than $5,000.

Just like the new software, people were slow to use the procurement cards, Etheridge said, even though the county earns cash back on the cards.

Train the trainer

Porter said the biggest problem with the conversion was training.

According to Maria Woods, the finance employee in charge of the conversion, the county used a "train the trainer" approach.

About 45 county employees were trained by the software companies, and those people have held about 250 classes for more than 1,000 users. About 700 sets of step-by-step instructions have been produced for an online manual.

While training classes will still happen for the utility bill conversion, most other instruction is now one-on-one.

Sheriff Butch Conway said his staff encountered some problems, too, when the financial system switched in April.

"There are problems with it, but I've been assured the problems are being addressed," he said, declining to go into specifics.

The Sheriff's Department uses the SAP system to purchase food for inmates, washing supplies and other needs to feed, house and clothe more than 2,000 inmates.

Conway said he did have problems getting vendors paid but none threatened to leave.

Johnsa said letters had been sent to all the county vendors before the April date explaining the conversion and asking them to be patient.

"It's a big change," Conway said. "Any time you make big changes, you're going to run into problems. I think some things have improved."