Panel gives chilly reaction to proposed sheriff’s office expenses

July 13, 2017 GMT

A potential 2018 wish list for the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office raised concerns at Thursday’s meeting of the County Board’s Finance Committee.

Why, asked committee member James Foley, didn’t the Sheriff’s Office put out a request for proposals for new software? And if the department’s existing software is good through 2020, why should county officials consider acquiring new software next year?

Capt. Darrel Kuhl, the chief deputy, came to the committee with a list of capital expenditures that might be proposed for the sheriff’s office in the 2018 budget. He offered no estimate of the total cost, because many of the costs are still unknown. The committee took no action on Kuhl’s presentation.

The list includes:

• Replacement of the radio system console.

• Replacement of 911 emergency answering software.

• Replacement of all other software utilized by the sheriff’s office, including programs for records management and the jail. This software, according to Kuhl, will become obsolete in 2020, and the companies that make the existing software are no longer investing in research and development.

• Evaluation and maintenance of the existing radio system, including towers. Technology is likely to change over the coming years, Kuhl said, but generally speaking, it’s less costly to maintain the existing system than to replace it altogether.

County Comptroller Lois Schepp said there is about $900,000 left from a one-time $1.2 million payment to the county from American Transmission Company, to compensate for the environmental impact of the high-voltage Badger Coulee power line.

In this year’s budget, some of that money was earmarked for the replacement of election equipment, at a cost of $312,363. The remainder was set aside for future upgrades, in 2018 or 2019, of the 911 system.

It is the replacement of other sheriff’s office software that remains a question mark.

Kuhl said about 25 other Wisconsin counties are also looking to replace soon-to-be-obsolete software, and companies are likely to vie for business next year by offering steep discounts. A system that might normally cost more than $1 million, he said, could be available for $600,000 to $700,000 – if the deal is made in 2018.

Waiting a year, until the obsolescence of existing software is imminent, would likely result in a loss of those savings, he said.

But, Foley asked, how can sheriff’s officials know what options are available if they don’t put out a request for proposals, outlining exactly what they need?

Schepp said a request for proposals is a vital tool for comparing costs of products and services, and for ensuring that “hidden” costs don’t crop up later.

Kuhl acknowledged that one of the potential “hidden” costs of new software is the cost of transferring existing data to the new system.

And, in response to a question from committee member Dan Drew, Kuhl said there are likely to be some pieces of computer hardware that will need to be replaced when the new software is acquired.

However, Kuhl said, the sheriff’s office staff has conducted extensive research, including meeting with representatives of software companies and consulting with other sheriff’s departments facing a similar situation. That research offers clarity as to what software is available that best meets Columbia County’s needs.

Foley expressed skepticism about Kuhl’s contention that competition would drive the price of software down next year, but not likely in the year after that.

Drew, who also is a member of the County Board’s Public Safety Committee, said the committee heard an informational presentation on the proposed capital budget items on Monday, but did not vote on them – partly because there is not yet any concrete information as to cost.

All county departments are in the process of drafting their proposed 2018 budgets. Each department is scheduled to meet with the Finance Committee in September to seek the committee’s approval for the budget.

The proposed 2018 budget will be presented to the County Board in October, and will be considered for adoption in November.