Tax Collector VOIP Project – Necessity or Re-inventing the Wheel?

During TAB’s initial look at the county spending, many people mentioned to us the apparent inefficient duplication of services that exists. Each of the Constitutional Officers, to varying degrees, manage their own infrastructure for things like Human Resources, Purchasing, and Information Technology. The arguments in favor of such an arrangement are sometimes compelling – such as the unique needs of the Sheriff. In other areas it is less clear that an established (and much larger) organization within the county structure could not do the job at lower cost and with better results.

This week, an example of further infrastructure divergence was brought to our attention. The Tax Collector, having assumed the responsibility for the county-wide motor vehicle offices from the state, has decided to upgrade the phone service within that function. Currently, Tax Collector network and telephone infrastructure is provided by county ISS.

Late last year, according to County ISS Director Steve Bordelon, ISS was asked to quote the work, and did so. It came as a surpise when they learned later that the Tax Collector had signed an agreement with an outside vendor (itpointe) for the purchase and installation of the new phone system in the Lantana and Palm Beach Gardens facilities, using a Cisco VOIP solution. ISS had previously adopted an Avaya solution (Cisco and Avaya are battling each other for dominance in the business communications market) and have over 1000 VOIP handsets installed throughout the county, a good track record of performance and reliability, and a trained staff ready to support the Avaya system 24×7.

When informed of this decision, Steve Bordelon wrote a memo to Jean-Luc Caous, the “Innovative Technology Captain” for the Tax Collector’s “Technovative Services” group (titles in the Tax Collector’s office are interesting – they even have a “Goddess of Excellence and Opportunity Leadership Centre”). In it, he explained the advantages of staying with the Avaya solution and further pointed out that the Cisco system cost of $49,041 compares to an equivalent cost of $30,822 for the Avaya, with the additional advantage of leveraging the existing VOIP infrastructure.
Additionally, he said this:

Proceeding with the installation of a Cisco VOIP telephone system will result in a duplication of resources and increased expenditure of taxpayer funds. Further, we are concerned that this decision could be a precursor to converting all of the remaining Tax Collector Offices to a separate phone system and perhaps, even a separate network, which would further increase the costs of government services to the taxpayers.

In his response, Mr. Caous said:

As part of transitioning the Driver’s License functions to the Tax Collector, the state advised us that we were responsible for obtaining the equipment and services required for our operations. As such, we have contracted with various vendors to implement solutions that are aligned with the organization’s strategies. We appreciate your recommendations that were put forward at our last meeting, however we feel that the CISCO VOIP solution better fits our requirements surrounding our new Driver’s License functions. Under our established project timeline, the PGA office is scheduled to be completed January 24th, 2011. Our office is too far along in the process at this point, and we do not want to deviate from the plan, which could jeopardize the project completion dates.

In addition, as mentioned in our previous discussion, the majority of the equipment to be installed would not be replicated. The new locations we are taking over require cabling work, switches, phones, etc., to bring them into our environment. These costs would have to be paid by taxpayers, regardless of whether the costs are paid by the state or the county.

Finally, it is not our intent to acquire a separate network but to leverage the county’s network infrastructure to run the technology that best meets our needs.

So is this decision in the interests of the taxpayer and the citizens of Palm Beach County? We called each of the memo-writers for their comments.

Steve Bordelon was gracious with his time, and explained some of the history of ISS support for the Constitutional officers and how it varies depending on who was elected to the post. He believes the decision is a mistake, but acknowledges that the Tax Collector is an independent entity and is free to make their own IT decisions. However Other Charter Counties in our peer group that he has studied (eg. Orange) make better use of centralized facilities.

Jean-Luc Caous declined to speak with us and instead referred the question to Tax Collector Anne Gannon herself. She told us that they will provide documentation that makes their case, but it will take some time to do so. She indicated that part of what drove the decision was difficulty working with ISS on the concept. On the goal to move to the VOIP system, they at first were told it could not be done in an off-site building, then that it would be too expensive. Finally, although asked to quote, ISS did not provide one to their satisfaction. The project was driven by the details of the handover from the state – the Tax Collector has signed a 50 year lease on the space in the state buildings, and acquired the computer equipment, but the phone systems were to be removed and used by the state elsewhere. Having to move quickly for a January 24 opening date, they bid the project to third party vendors and were satisfied with the price and capablilty of the vendor selected to provide the phones and connect them to the county system. ISS will do the cable installation. Ms. Gannon said she will provide further background on the project later and we agreed to report on it here.

In TAB’s view, the Constitutional’s operate through sub-optimization. Each makes their own decisions about what is best for their organization and proceeds accordingly, irrespective of the investments that have already been made in county infrastructure. (There are exceptions – Gary Nikolits contracts the development and operation of the EXCELLENT and specialized PAPA database system and the printing or TRIM notices to ISS).
There have not been strong incentives to do otherwise, and bureaucracies being what they are, people at all levels would rather control their own destiny by spending their budget dollars in a way that gives them the most control over their resources.

From a taxpayer perspective – this decision sounds like a bad deal – an example of “re-inventing the wheel”. Can Cisco and Avaya systems coexist on the same network? Probably, but it has been my experience (30 years in the IT business) that it is asking for trouble. Minor incompatiblities can result in finger pointing by vendor support staffs, particularly when a rivalry as fierce as Cisco/Avaya is involved. When that happens, support costs go up and reliablility goes down. It makes sense only in the scenario that the Tax Collector is planning to totally disconnect from the rest of the county and go her own way.

That said, it is clear that the working relationship between ISS and the Tax Collector’s office needs some work. While ISS thinks the decision is wrong and the solution too expensive, the Tax Collector believes they were not getting the service they required from ISS. Perhaps avoiding sub-optimization in the future requires mediation.

We think this is an excellent example of what needs to be discussed in the upcoming Charter Review. With the enormous fiscal challenges facing state and local governments this kind of thing is out of step. Many are making the case that the smaller Constitutional Offices should really be county dependent departments (and thus use county support services). While a case can be made for the independence of the Property Appraiser and Supervisor of elections (objectivity) and the Clerk (independent audit), the case for the Tax Collector was given as “not wanting the people sending the bill to also collect the money”. (The independence of the Sheriff is more complicated and will be addressed in a later post.) Perhaps there is a middleground that can provide independence, yet still have incentives to optimize common resources at the county level. Every little bit helps.


2 Responses to “Tax Collector VOIP Project – Necessity or Re-inventing the Wheel?”
  1. Frances says:

    Has anyone tried to do business with the taxpayers office through their web site? I don’t know why there isn’t huge public outcry about how inefficient and unresponsive the office has become. Services which were once available online no longer exist, so the only alternatives are to call or visit an office. The offices are packed with long wait times and the phones are impossible to get through. Not to mention the actual chaos experienced by the workers in the office who used to be very organized and friendly, and are now overburdened by the unacceptable and unnecessary change in operations. Where are the people who had seasoned experience in how to serve the tax paying public? Does the Department of Revenue know what a mess things are here!?!? Commissioner Aaronson knows because he is hearing from his constituents… but I bet that is just the tip of the iceburg.

  2. Dale Gregory says:

    All levels of government are wasting money on telecom, Internet, information technology, and support services:
    The VOIP project is but one example. Others include:
    1. Constitutional Officers purchasing human resource and accounting software with a combined cost of nearly $20 million, when the County IT department applications that could have avoided the investment
    2. Constitutional Officers that have their own IT staff and help desk.
    3. Martin County has a County wide VOIP system. It took three years of lobbying by ATT before it was purchased – saving their taxpayers millions
    4. County IT and Traffic Departments have hundreds of miles of fiber capacity that could be used to connect schools, libraries, hospitals, municipalities, public safety to the internet. Currently the Traffic Department fibers are not being used to the max for this purpose. Important note: the County IT department has been collaborating with schools and others to connect to their fiber.
    5. Boca Raton refuses to share assets with the County for political reasons – both could save money and bring fiber broadband capacity to most schools located in the city.
    This is just the tip of the iceberg!

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