Counties balk at cost of human services software
Progress is being made, but contracts between Winona County and five other nearby counties for the implementation of a paperless document system haven’t been signed yet.
Progress is being made, but contracts between Winona County and five other nearby counties for the implementation of a paperless document system haven't been signed yet.
After Winona County took the leap to implement the paperless system, they decided to partner with other counties to share their knowledge and expertise. Wabasha County Administrator Michael Plante indicated that partnering has its benefits: counties could get lower licensing rates by buying in bulk, and save by not duplicating work to implement the software.
However, Fillmore, Freeborn, Goodhue, Houston and Wabasha counties balked at the original billing for Winona County's assistance. Contracts had not been signed to previously clarify the matter. The counties are now in the process of negotiating contracts with Winona County.
Both Winona County Information Technology (IT) Director Mark Anderson and former Winona County Administrator Duane Hebert, who headed the initiative in Winona County, were out of the office when the billing occurred; Anderson was out due to extended illness and Hebert had been fired over a separate matter. The contracts didn't get put together, and Anderson said unexpected costs for new projects drove the price up on Winona County's end.
Although the project was originally touted as a money-maker for the county, the higher costs meant that Winona County would need several years just to break even on the project.
"We're not trying to make money on this, we are trying to provide a service. It's not as good of a deal as we thought, but we wouldn't be moving forward if we didn't believe in it," Winona County Board Chairman Steve Jacob said.
The initial estimate for providing the service in one department in Winona was $350,000. That one installation would pay for itself in a matter of months. But adding the service to other departments and counties drove the price up.
Winona County has spent $2.3 million on the project to date. "The service is terribly expensive, but it does have paybacks," Anderson said.
The largest of these paybacks is in efficiency. Paperwork and data entry are more streamlined and accessible with the new software. Anderson said that previously, human services case files on a single person could be four or five inches thick and could be left in different locations. Meetings with clients to fill out the paperwork could take two hours, and the paper files had the possibility of being lost or misfiled.
"It was an example of government at its worst," Anderson said.
Now, interviews can take closer to 20 minutes, files are stored electronically so they won't get misplaced, space is saved storing paper files, and the county doesn't have to hire staff even as their caseload increases.
Plante expressed satisfaction with the way software had been implemented in Wabasha County. "The program overall has been good, and any problems we have had were resolved quickly," Plante said.
Despite the controversy and inflated costs, Jacob said the project was becoming more concrete as contracts are finishing up and the actual costs of the project are more definitive.
"We want to be fair with our taxpayers. We haven't had full transparency about this project, but now there is transparency for everyone. … I am very confident that this will not happen again, and it has undergone a great amount of scrutiny. It was a lot of good people trying to do good things," Jacob said.