8,000 Lobsters

With county government, waste isn't just for credit cards

Frank Talk

by Frank Cagle

You may or may not think this is a sexy storyâ"but try and think of it as 8,000 lobster tail lunches, OK?

In his budget for 2005-2006 County Mayor Mike Ragsdale noted that during the year he would merge the school and county payroll departments to save money. What he didn't say is that this maneuver would effectively move over $200 million in school funds under the control of the mayor's office.

The merger has not happened, is not likely to happen and has, in fact, been â“suspended.â” The school system is still doing its own payroll. This after a minimum of $1.6 million and a possible $2.6 million has been spent.

Ragsdale signed a contract for Lawson Software, a huge software company, to come in and computerize the county payroll system. In fairness, it appears the relatively stable county payroll side of the equation has been a success. Lawson is a respected human resource contractor and has clients like Pilot Travel Centers and Goody's.

School payrolls are another kettle of fish.

The school system has its payroll defined by statute. They have teachers and administrators on a monthly pay scheduleâ"nine months pay stretched over 12 months. Except the people with extended contracts, who may be paid for 10 months or 11 months on a 12-month cycle. The maintenance workers and cafeteria workers and secretaries get paid bi-weekly. On any given day there are 80 substitute teachers in the schools. They are paid one rate as college graduates, more if they are a certified teacher. More if they work over 20 days in one position, at two different rates. It is an accounting nightmare. No off-the-shelf software can deal with it.

The county had seven people inputting data and computing the payroll each month. The Lawson system required that all this data be pushed back to the individual schoolsâ"some 90 school secretaries were supposed to fill out Excel spreadsheets and upload them to a computer downtown. The possibility of error was raised exponentially. Overworked school secretaries handling angry parents, ill children and running a school were supposed to do data entry in their spare time. They were not hired to be bookkeepers. Tracking down an error in the payroll was virtually impossible.

When school administrators raised these objections at the outset they were derided as engaging in a turf battle and being obstreperous. The politically powerful county Mayor rammed it through. If you go back and read the minutes of school board meetings and workshops, the board expressed concern throughout the process. The original go-live date had been July 1, 2004. But it slipped to July 2005. It's still slipping.

In a June 28, 2004 workshop board member Dan Murphy noted the delays and said: â“If this fails big money will be paid as well as political hides being hung.â”

It's time to hang them.

Knox County Commissioner Lee Trammel, who has been making financial accountability a crusade of late, has sent a letter to school Superintendent Roy Mullins asking him to give Commission an accounting of the money the schools have been forced to spend on the project.

This is what I've been able to discover thus far, pending that full accounting. Knox County paid the schools $700,000 to operate its payroll department during the transition year so people would still get paid while the new system was being implemented. The contract to Lawson for the school portion of the computer program was $700,000. There was an additional $35,000 paid to another consultant to facilitate communication between Lawson and the school system. Yes, they had to get a translator.

During the supposed transition, school payroll people had to do the regular payroll, then work on the new system after hours and on weekends. The school system racked up $200,000 in overtime.

That comes to $1.6 million. That doesn't count the restaurant space in the old AJ that was converted into offices to use during the transition. That's just the school side of the equation. How much did the county spend on the school portion of the Lawson contract over on the county side of the process? No one has ever dared compute it. But it was a multi-million dollar contract and there are 2,000 employees on the county side and 7,000 employees on the school side. I've gotten one estimate the county spent an additional $1 million on handling the school issue. That pushes the total to $2.6 million for the part that doesn't work.

Should anyone believe the alibi that the merger has only been suspended, you should know one other thing: The school system just spent $200,000 upgrading its old payroll system.

Frank Cagle is a political analyst and the editor of Knoxville magazine. You can reach him at frank@frankcagle.com .


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