City may ditch billing software after recurring problems

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By ALEX LEARY

CRYSTAL RIVER, Fla., Nov. 14, 2000 (St.Petersburg Times) — City officials appear ready to ask the City Council to spend tens of thousands of dollars to replace year-old accounting software that has been blamed for causing numerous problems with utility bills.

Employees who use the software say homeowners either are being charged too little or too much for water and sewer service.

The employees say they have worked hundreds of hours of paid overtime trying to correct mistakes and learn the software, which is sold under the name Munis.

"It's been a nightmare," said Gayle Cunningham, the city's financial operations supervisor.

But as they work toward a solution, city officials are receiving conflicting advice from two consultants. One has recommended the city keep the software; the other says the city should cut its losses.

Phillip Price, a Crystal River accountant, surveyed several cities that have used Munis and reported that most are working through the problems.

"The majority felt that there was light at the end of the tunnel and that they had simply expended too much resources to abandon it at this point," Price wrote in an Oct. 5 letter to City Manager David Sallee.

In a subsequent report, Price wrote: "I do not believe that if (city employees) had an automobile that did not run very well but got better every time the mechanic worked on it, that they would park it beside the road and go buy a new vehicle."

In an interview on Monday, Sallee said the city is attempting to give Munis a fair hearing.

"But we have not seen marked improvement in the product," he said. "The problems are still there."

Crystal River already has paid $50,000 for the software and owes $54,000, according to the finance department. The city is contesting some of the outstanding balance, saying customer support was never provided.

One remedy would be to run the utility billing software as a stand-alone application, Price said. Currently, it is bundled, or "integrated," with various other financial applications.

The other consultant, John Redrup of EssentialNet Solutions in Satellite Beach, said he likely will recommend that Crystal River drop Munis. "It just hasn't worked."

Redrup said he has several software options lined up, which could cost the city between $35,000 and $60,000.

"The problem is that it's almost throwing good money after bad," Redrup said. Going with new software has downsides, he added, such as the time it will take employees to learn a new system.

"It's not going to be without pain," he said. "That's what the city is struggling with now."

Council member Mike Gudis typified the council's cautious approach. "The bottom line is we need a system that will work. As far as what we should do at this point, I would have to analyze both reports and get some numbers. I think we're talking about a substantial amount of money," he said.

If the decision were left to Cunningham, the financial operations supervisor, Munis would have been ditched months ago. She said she has worked more than 200 hours dealing with the problems.

One recurring glitch, she said, is that final utility bills list lower "pay after" amounts than if someone had paid the balance on time. And when she prints a duplicate bill, different amounts are reflected than the original bill.

In a telephone interview from Falmouth, Maine, Munis president John Marr acknowledged the software had problems and attributed them to an early release driven by Year 2000 computer problems.

Many municipalities, including Crystal River, had to replace non-Y2K compliant software and as a result, the Munis rushed to meet demand, Marr said. "It's possible that it was released more aggressively than we typically release a product. It wasn't as mature or robust as one might want it to be."

In the months since, he said his company has worked to provide upgrades for the software. And it has beefed up its support staff. Marr estimated that it would take at least six months for Crystal River to convert to new software and then it would take employees weeks, even months, to fully learn the system. Whatever problems the city has with Munis could be worked out by then, he said.

Several people involved in city affairs have suggested that recent turnover in the finance department may have led to the problems, implying that Munis may not be to blame. At the same time, city employees complain that the technical support from Munis has been lacking.

Munis is used by 800 municipal governments nationwide, including many in Florida. The software caused many of the same problems in Inverness, but the glitches have been worked out.

"Right now we're having a lot of success with it," said finance director Shari Chiodo, who is a former Munis employee. "It's not like off-the-shelf stuff. It's got a lot of pieces to learn and you have to really get in there and learn them to make it work best for you."

Crystal River would not be the only Florida municipality to bail out on Munis, if it did.

Flagler Beach did so three weeks ago after encountering bills that listed the wrong address or were twice as high as they should be.

"They would fix one thing and they would create a problem somewhere else," said Flagler Beach finance director Gabriel Casanova. "The system never worked smoothly. It was extremely, extremely archaic."

To see more of The St. Petersburg Times, go to http://www.sptimes.com.

(c) St. Petersburg Times, published November 14, 2000

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