Consultant suggests reboot for Poulsbo’s financial software

POULSBO — The City of Poulsbo bid Finance Director Donna Bjorkman adieu earlier this month.

And it looks like the first project she ever completed on the job will also be retiring with her.

Since January, Seattle’s Soft Resources has been reviewing the City of Poulsbo Finance Department’s software systems for the first time in 14 years. The undertaking, spurred by last year’s citywide process study, was meant to determine how Poulsbo could bring its aging financial software up to date.

“We’d known for years but that was just one more push that we needed to really look into it,” Finance Director Nancy Lien said of the advice from the process study.

Since it had been 14 years since the system was installed, city staff decided it would be appropriate to hire a consultant. Soft Resources was an easy choice for the job because the company was already on a state contract for cities.

“And the good thing about Soft Resources is they don’t resell any software so they could give us a completely unbiased opinion,” Poulsbo Information Systems Specialist Fay Schultz said.

During Phase I, which took place January to May, Soft Resources representatives conducted staff interviews to establish criteria for a new software system. They then interviewed the current software provider, ASP, to determine how continuing with that system would work with those needs in mind.

“Rather than just coming in with the idea we were going to replace that, they said, ‘Let’s look at what you already have. Maybe all you need is an upgrade,’” Schultz said.

The cost for Phase I, which the council will review at its May 12 meeting, was about $11,200.

Soft Resources’ conclusion is that continuing with ASP is not the correct choice for Poulsbo. Currently, the ASP software used by Poulsbo staff runs in a DOS mode and while there is a Windows upgrade available, it is only what Schultz called a “mask” rather than a true Windows operating system.

“We’ve had a really good relationship with the company but it’s limited and we’ve used the system to its capacity,” Lien commented of ASP.

One of the startling things Soft Resource’s review discovered was a great deal of city staff were using side systems in order to complete their work. For most, Microsoft Excel was the system of choice for creating spreadsheets that were not available through the ASP system.

“We’d like to find something so that we can connect all the city systems and get them to talk to one another,” Lien explained. “Right now, we’re having double and triple data entry and we’re hoping that’s one of the things we can avoid.”

The next step would be for the city council to decide on a process for doing a request for proposals for new software. Having Soft Resources do an RFP would cost about $3,600 or the city could choose to have the request drafted in house. However, Lien said the Finance/Administration Committee at its April 21 meeting was behind spending the extra money to have the consultant continue working on the project.

One of the reasons is the significantly larger projected outlay for a new software system. For software and implementation, staying with ASP would cost Poulsbo between $14,000-$20,000 plus an estimated $7,950 in yearly maintenance costs. In comparison, a replacement will likely cost between $90,000-$200,000 for software and implementation with yearly maintenance costs of between $8,000-$20,000.

“They decided that $3,600 is a small price to pay if there’s the possibility they’ll catch something we might miss,” Lien commented.

“This isn’t a buy this year and uh oh it doesn’t work scenario. We have to make the right decision,” Schultz added.

If the council agrees, Soft Resources can also be retained for its services through the implementation step. Those additional phases include:

•Phase II (January-May) Research — RFP and vendor responses, staff will give a preferred alternative. Cost, $14,500.

•Phase III (January-May) Demos — Three to four scripted demonstrations from preferred alternatives. Cost, $5,120.

•Phase IV (May-October 2004) Decision — Decision on a package and company. Cost, $640.

•Phase V (May-October) Contracts — Soft Resources will assist with a high level review of software contracts. Cost, $960.

In the best case scenario, implementation could take place in July 2005. Lien said originally it was thought that it could begin sometime between October and January 2005, however, she would prefer not to have such an undertaking so close to the beginning of the year.

And though the software costs will likely be high, Lien said about $200,000 has already been set aside in the general fund in anticipation of this capital purchase. The proprietary, or utility, side of the budget would likely pay the rest of the cost.

Finance/Administration Committee members also expressed some concern last Wednesday about the potential rise in maintenance costs. With belt tightening across the board, Councilman Ed Stern said he did not want the city to take on a continuing cost it could not afford in the long run.

But Lien, at the advice of Mayor Donna Jean Bruce, will be bringing a proposal forward May 5 for a restructuring of the Finance Department from seven full time equivalent employees to six. The reduction would take place through attrition, as Lien has moved up to the Finance Director position.

“In my mind, the belt tightening you’re already doing is helping council to support this investment,” Stern told Lien April 21.

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