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Our view: Staff, commissioners did lousy job reviewing software bids

May 03, 1999

Unless it's a birthday party, don't surprise your boss, especially if he or she is an elected official. It's a lesson we've seen government staffers learn repeatedly, and the latest to get educated in that way was Karen Luther, Washington County's purchasing agent.

During the commissioners' April 20 meeting, Luther got them to approve a $2.8 million contract to bring their payroll and other computer systems into Year 2000 compliance.

Though the package was reviewed by a staff committee and a consultant, Commissioner John Schnebly voted against it, saying he wanted cost estimates from the six other proposals. Now it's been revealed that the package chosen is almost $1 million higher than another proposal.

Luther and Rod Shoop, the county administrator, say that it's unfair to compare the two proposals, because they propose doing different things, and that it would be, in effect, like comparing apples and oranges.

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Perhaps, but this is beside the point. One of the functions of the staff is to educate elected officials about the nitty-gritty details. In this case, all the commissioners except Schnebly weren't willing to wait, at least until they heard that they might be spending a million dollars more than necessary on a Y2K fix.

They may have been anxious to move forward because there's not much time left to dither over a decision that probably should have been made by the last county board.

It's too late to hash over that point now, however. What the staff and its consultant need to do is justify their decision to the current county board, which might now be a mood to ask the following question:

- If it's going to cost $2.8 million to bring the county's old systems into Y2K compliance, what would new systems cost? The prospect of a $2 million sale might have computer salespeople falling all over themselves to offer discounts and deals on new equipment with capabilities superior to what's in use now, and with a Y2K fix built in. It's a question we hope the commissioners will ask when they review the whole situation tomorrow.

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