A $400,000 records management system overhaul for the Sampson County Sheriff’s Office, after months of back-and-forth and deadlocks among the Board of Commissioners similar to those experienced by the county budget, was approved in a split vote Tuesday moments after the fiscal plan received the nod.
Moments after the budget was approved in a 3-2 vote, the electronic hardware and software system was OK’d by the same count. Unprompted, chairman Billy Lockamy opened the floor following the budget vote.
“Do I hear another motion?” asked Lockamy during a work session specifically called to discuss and, hopefully, approve the budget.
Commissioner Jefferson Strickland took the cue, making a motion to award the bid to Southern Software Inc. for software, installation and training at a cost of $272,055, and virtual private network software from Seamless at a cost of $29,966. Strickland stated that $403,486 should be appropriated from the “housing out-of-county prisoners” account. The additional cost consists of hardware (computer servers and other equipment from Dell Computers at a cost of $76,546.09) and software (Microsoft Office Professional Software at a cost of $24,918).
Lockamy asked for a second, to which Commissioner John Blanton quickly obliged.
Commissioner Jarvis McLamb asked why the matter was not on the meeting agenda.
“I don’t really know if it has to be on the agenda,” Lockamy replied.
McLamb said there should have been a motion to add the item on the agenda, which was not done. McLamb asked county attorney Annette Chancy-Starling if that was correct. That is the usual course of action for regular monthly board meetings, with a request necessary to modify and add items, as well as approve the published agenda at the outset.
Chancy-Starling said that, because the board was meeting as part of a work session, a vote to add the issue was not necessary. “We weren’t provided this beforehand, so I don’t think there is a set agenda,” she noted.
During several recent meetings, sheriff’s authorities have talked in detail about the “critical need” for an electronic records management system, which has gone unfunded in the past due to budgetary constraints. It cannot be put on the backburner any longer, they said. The growing responsibility to provide timely and accurate public records upon request while dealing with limited physical storage space and increasing unfunded mandates from other entities, notably preparing “discovery” items for court, necessitate a better filing system.
Sheriff Jimmy Thornton said his office is two to three months behind at the end of every calendar year in getting necessary data to the State Bureau of Investigation. The backlog on detectives’ cases is about 50 a month. Having a better records management system could free up detectives to be out in the field and not saddled with excess paperwork.
The request was initially presented at the board’s planning session in February and considered again in May before being tabled, with commissioners voting to solicit formal requests for proposals and present them during budget deliberations in June. At that time, the board was told that six vendors were contacted and bids solicited, but only Southern responded, and the Sheriff’s Office and county staff recommended that bid be awarded.
The board deadlocked 2-2 at that time, with Blanton absent from deliberations. The tiebreaking vote was present Tuesday.
‘Classic example of waste’
After hearing the motion and second, Lockamy asked for any further discussion. This time, it was Commissioner Albert Kirby who obliged.
“This would be the classic example of waste,” he said. “It’ll pass today I’m sure. This is an example of how if you bid it and let competitive bidding under statute, there’s no question Southern Software would probably lose this bid. They’re offering too much money for their services. That’s all there is to it. But for some reason, they just don’t want to bid it out and let different people bid on it. There could be enough saved from this one act right here to increase the salaries of the deputies by 3 percent — you could get $100,000, maybe $200,000, savings just from this.”
As he has said at several other meetings, Kirby reiterated that he is not against the software or what is being offered and what it would mean to the Sheriff’s Office. He said he was simply against “just giving it to the vendor that is asking for it without somebody competitively bidding against them.”
Blanton said he was present when the matter first came up and said he did not think there was a problem, that it was bid. Kirby said it was not “bid out in the formal process” as required by General Statute, but rather four or five potential bidders were contacted and bids solicited. County manager Ed Causey jumped in.
“Mr. Blanton, what we used was a request for proposal, and the procedure for this was the same procedure we used for doing the Medicaid transportation contract that was recently approved, as well as the software for the Tax Office. We were doing the request for proposal.”
Causey noted last month that a request for proposal, or RFP, does meet the requirements of the law. Kirby said the bid process would be “the appropriate measure under these circumstances,” saying he was certain it would result in a lower price tag.
“There’s no question that it would be much lower than $400,000 amount,” Kirby noted. “I’m not against it, I’m just against the process.”
Lockamy said he spoke with Causey several times and was satisfied “the process was done right” and backed the staff 100 percent. Commissioner Jefferson Strickland noted Southern Software’s status in providing records management systems for other Sheriff’s Offices across North Carolina — local sheriff’s officials said there are 40 in the state that use Southern.
“We’re not the first one to use this company and its services and programs. This is used by many others in the state and has proved to be successful and workable,” said Strickland. “I would say to gamble with this much money on a company or a system we might not be aware of might be a bigger gamble than anything I know of. (To spend) this much money and not know what you’re going to get with someone who might not have a track record in this field.”
That gamble would be nonexistent, because the statute says “lowest responsible bidder,” with governing boards given the opportunity to accept or reject the bids.
“You can’t make any logical argument against bidding it out, with all due respect,” Kirby said. “You can try and try to justify it. There’s no plausible argument you can have against bidding things of $400,000 out. It’s like debating the rain. There’s a mechanism in the system that would make sure that people who get the bid are reputable, have a track record and are doing exactly what you want them to do.”
Lockamy said he stood by the process and said “we did the right thing.”
“Just because sometimes it’s the lowest bid, doesn’t mean it’s the best bid either,” he said.
The vote was 3-2, with McLamb and Kirby dissenting.
Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 121 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.