Ignoring staff recommendations recipe for calamity


Sunday, June 10, 2018

City Council’s hiring of a Texas firm instead of a Canadian one to replace Elizabeth City’s decades-old utility billing software, while the wrong decision, wasn’t itself a calamity. What could prove calamitous is the way council went about making the decision.

As city officials readily acknowledged, the Incode software the city will be buying from Plano-based Tyler Technologies is capable of performing the basic utility billing functions the city was seeking in an upgrade from the Logics Classic software it’s currently using. And while not as fast as the Northstar Utility Solutions software city officials had recommended, Tyler’s software is less costly — about $200,000 cheaper than Northstar’s.

Council deserves some credit for agreeing to any upgrade of the Logics system. With the debacle the last attempted software upgrade caused still fresh in customers’ minds, it would have been easy for councilors to kick the can down the road and wait to try the upgrade again when fewer voters were watching. 

But agreeing to the upgrade is the only credit the four councilors and Mayor Bettie Parker, who broke a 4-4 tie in favor of Tyler’s software, deserve for this wrong-headed decision.

Picking Tyler’s software over Northstar’s flew in the face of a unanimous recommendation of every city official with expertise in the matter. The city manager, the assistant city manager, the finance director, the city clerk, and the information technology director all said Northstar’s billing software offered both city staff and customers more “functionality,” meaning it’s easier, quicker and ultimately better to use.

This recommendation from a united city staff wasn’t based on a gut feeling. Knowing there would be a lot of questions about another attempted utility billing upgrade after last year’s Edmunds fiasco, city staff invested a lot of time investigating both Tyler’s and Northstar’s systems. Not only did they try out the systems themselves, they talked to city staffers in other North Carolina communities that have used them. Their unanimous conclusion was that Northstar’s was the much better option.

But the superiority of Northstar’s technology wasn’t the only reason to buy its software, city staff said. ElectriCities, the utility management firm attached to the city’s wholesale power supplier, has provided unlimited technical support to other North Carolina communities using Northstar’s billing software, and would do the same for Elizabeth City. Conversely, Tyler’s contract offers only limited technical support for the conversion. 

This 24-hour tech support from ElectriCities wouldn’t have been without cost. Officials said the city would end up paying $316,700 for ElectriCities’ services over the three-year period. But the key point is: the city would have had experts guiding the transition from the Logics system to Northstar’s. The city didn’t have that outside expertise guiding the attempted Edmunds upgrade, choosing instead to do it in-house. It’s a key reason why the upgrade attempt caused customers so many billing headaches and ultimately failed. 

Attempting to justify their decision to ignore the recommendation of professionals they pay hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to advise them, the four city councilors — Johnnie Walton, Anita Hummer, Darius Horton and Gabriel Adkins — and Parker who voted for Tyler’s software said their choice came down to cost.

There are a couple of problems with that explanation. One is the fact the city will still have to pay someone, possibly ElectriCities, to help to convert customers' data from Logics Classic to Tyler's Incode software. Olson has estimated that cost at $40,000. That means instead of costing $408,000, converting the city’s billing software to Tyler’s Incode software will cost about $448,000. While it’s still less than the $641,000 the city would have paid for both Northstar’s software and ElectriCities’ tech support, it points out there likely will be more hidden costs to the Tyler option that councilors haven’t thought about.

One of those hidden costs isn’t actually so hidden because it was pointed out during council discussions about the upgrade. It’s the burden converting to Tyler’s system will place on city staff. Assistant City Manager Angela Cole repeatedly advised councilors that going with Tyler’s software would require more staff time than Northstar’s. The cost of that extra time has yet to be determined. 

So if cost control is a red herring, what was the real motivation for this wrongheaded decision? We’re convinced it was a power play, pure and simple. 

Walton and Horton spent a lot of time during the previous council being out-voted on a range of issues. With allies now in Adkins and Hummer, and a friendlier mayor in Parker, Walton and Horton feel empowered to show city staff and the public who’s really in charge at City Hall. In this new political universe, ignoring city staff on any decision, large or small, could become the norm rather than the exception. And that kind of behavior, if it continues, is what poses real potential calamity for our city.

There is one silver lining to council’s decision to ignore city staff’s advice on this utility conversion contract. If the Tyler upgrade goes south like the Edmunds one did, utility customers at least won’t have to hunt within the bureaucracy at City Hall for those responsible. They can just show up at council meetings and address those seated around the council dais.