The purchase of new software for the Sampson County Tax Office is expected to alleviate years of tedious double-entry and staff headaches, as well as reduce errors on tax bills and allow property owners real-time tax updates, all while bringing a way to implement soil classification into land appraisals.
On Monday, the Sampson County Board of Commissioners unanimously approved purchasing new CAMA (computer-assisted mass appraisal) software, awarding a bid to Tyler Technologies Inc. at an annual cost of $101,000 for six years. Last year, commissioners, having heard the pleas of staff, voted to set aside money to fund the needed software.
“You guys decided that we would start putting aside money to purchase a new CAMA system. From then to now, we’ve tried to vet the process of people who do CAMA software,” said information technology director Chris Rayner. “It took a lot of time and effort from several departments trying to make sure we did what is best for Sampson County.”
For several years, Sampson Tax Office staff has had to check properties manually through two different software applications, Munis and Keystone. The checking process has traditionally included hundreds and hundreds of pages of printouts and running through them code by code to ensure those in one system are correct and match information in another. Without double-entry, steps could be cut out and improvements already made, such as the Geographic Information System, can be built upon.
“I can tell you from experience that double entry causes errors,” said Rayner. “It can be no more than the fat finger to the tired person.”
It is an issue with which county commissioners are familiar, budgeting $200,000 last year and another $200,000 this year for the first two years of a three-installment, $600,000 overhaul. Another $200,000 is expected in 2013-14.
In the past year and a half, county staff has spoken about the need to improve an antiquated and tedious two-system entry process — one highlighted, and compounded, by the 2011 property revaluation. New software would be able to enhance revenue collection, increase Tax Office efficiency and correct duplicate data entry and errors within the Tax Office’s CAMA system, county staff said.
Rayner and tax administrator Jim Johnson again spoke to commissioners during February’s planning session about the steps being taken toward finding a vendor that can best meet the county’s specific needs. A committee was formed last September to that end, consisting of Rayner, Johnson, county manager Ed Causey and three Tax Office supervisors.
“We feel that we were very methodical in our process,” said Johnson, who noted approximately 220 staff hours dedicated to the matter. “We brought the top four vendors in the state to Sampson County for demonstrations. We sent staff members to other counties to see these other softwares being utilized in the office and get feedback from other counties.”
“We knew we had to get a process that would work and do the best job for the county,” Rayner added. “It was really thought-out. We had several, several meetings with numerous companies for them to come in and show us their product.”
All that being done, Johnson and Rayner brought the committee’s recommendation of a bid award to Tyler Technologies Inc. Monday. Johnson said the county was looking at two things when we started the process.
“We wanted to make more information accessible to the general public and make it easier for them to get the information, and also reduce workflows and errors within the Tax Office,” said Johnson. “We have been operating on two systems for several years. As you have to take the information from a CAMA and assessment package and transfer that to billings and collections, there is a margin for error. You run the risk of entering data wrongly.”
In adding CAMA software from Tyler Technologies, the county would bring itself effectively onto one system, with Tyler already handling the county’s billing and collections software, Johnson said. Data can be keyed in from the field and that value automatically goes into the billing and collections for the next tax year — no double entry, no more tedious re-doing of work, he noted.
“As Jim said, we were very methodical about this. One, because we knew that the Tax Office is the cash register, we’ve always said that,” Rayner said. “They haven’t changed softwares in — I’ve been here at least 11 years, and they’ve been working on this two-process system. And, until we started making some other changes, I didn’t realize the damages that were going on in the office until I could sit down and get into this process.”
There was no billings and collections software that was better than what the county has currently, Rayner and Johnson said. Johnson said going with Tyler and keeping the current billings software intact made sense. It would also help grow the capabilities under the entire system, notably soil classification.
Inquiries about a company’s ability to incorporate soil types and classifications into tax bills were at the top of the list when meeting with vendors.
“The stuff we did with GIS last year was key to helping us make sure we get these land use values correct in moving forward,” said Rayner. “That was the key. That was probably the first question out. ‘Can you do land use? How do you do it? Can we see some results of you having done it?’ That began to knock some of the other vendors out. They could talk it, but they couldn’t show it. Folks started dropping out, because it just wasn’t there.”
The board has received strong admonishment from the N.C. Property Tax Commission to correct its software to improve the county’s evaluation process for land use.
“They said this is twice you’ve been up here with questions on your system,” Causey recalled, “we really don’t recommend that you come back up here eight years from now with any other questions on your system that have not been fixed.”
That, coupled with staff concerns of increasing workloads and decreasing morale due to a two-system process, led the county to set aside the funds, the formation of the committee and Monday’s recommendation.
A request for proposals (RFP) for tax office software was sent out on March 1, with responses due back from vendors by April 16. Two vendors, BiTek LLC and Tyler, submitted bids. BiTek proposed $245,200 with an annual support cost of $36,563 compared to Tyler’s bid of $101,000 annually.
“Due to BiTek LLC having never valued land by soil type and the fact that Tyler Technologies is the current vendor for the billing and collections software, it is the recommendation of the Tax, IT and Finance departments that the bid be awarded to Tyler Technologies at an annual cost of $101,000 for six years,” Johnson stated. “This price includes licensing rights, off-site data backup and software upgrades.”
Rayner said that price would include “everything,” noting also support and training for the staff.
“Hopefully this would be the last billing cycle we would have to endure trying to get values to match up with two different systems,” said Johnson. “We just feel when you’re talking about the integrity of taxpayers’ data, it needs to be correct. Values need to be correct and codes need to be correct when we’re talking about taxpayer dollars.”
“I want to think we went through this as methodically as you can,” said Rayner, “because we know where we are as a county and where we need to be.”
Commissioner Jarvis McLamb made a motion to authorize execution of a contract with Tyler Technologies Inc. for software and professional services. Commissioner Albert Kirby seconded and the vote was unanimous.
Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 121 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.