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County dumps tax software

Hubbard County commissioners voted Tuesday to immediately suspend their agreement with the Michigan maker of defective tax assessing software; the board will probably stiff the company for money it owes for 2010.

That won't make a dent in the $200,000+ the county has already lost purchasing and trying to implement the once vaunted Manatron billing, assessing and recording program that never lived up to expectations.

"We cannot do our taxes with the Manatron system as it is, pure and simple," said Hubbard County Auditor Pam Heeren, who had suggested with other department heads the county switch tax systems two years ago when reliability of the county's ailing software, ACS Property Tax, worried county officials.

The upshot of the deal struck Tuesday is that the county will pay to reinstate its contract with ACS and enter into a two-year deal with the company. The reinstatement would cost $53,319.40, which includes a payment to Manatron under its current contract with the company.

That troubles commissioners, who debated withholding the maintenance and support payment of $17,370 to Manatron under that contract that expires at the end of 2010.

"I don't think we should give Manatron a nickel, not one nickel," said commissioner Dick Devine.

"Why should we pay for something they can't fix?" questioned commissioner Cal Johannsen.

"I think we should go after 'em," Devine said. "They sold something they did not have and cannot produce."

The board will ask County Attorney Don Dearstyne to evaluate litigation, possibly a class action suit with other counties and states, against the company.

The company bills itself as a "global leader in providing enterprise-level, integrated property software systems and services for state and local government."

Manatron marketing official Rachel Bryant said it is the company's policy not to comment on specific contracts.

The company's Web site issued an announcement last month that it had contracted with 21 Minnesota counties to implement the software, and it included testimonials from a Washington County official about how well the software was working.

It never worked for Hubbard County and was too cumbersome for the county's small staff to adequately handle public inquiries, said County Coordinator Jack Paul.

"If somebody called with a tax question they'd have to scroll through six screens to find the answer," he said. "With ACS it was all on one screen."

Paul said half of the Minnesota counties under contract, now numbering 27, have walked away from Manatron, each leaving their $200,000 down payments on the table.

Over the 2010-2011 period, the county will spend $102,000 with ASC, which has nationwide support, county officials discussed.

The county has spent a considerable sum trying to implement Manatron, including hiring outside tech support because the county contracts for IT (information technology) services.

"My help came from Washington, Morrison and Brown counties," said Tom Hankins, an outside consultant the county retained to implement the Manatron software.

"My biggest concern going forward is we don't see tech support from Manatron in any way, shape or form," Hankins said. "Fifty to 75 percent of my time has been billed for Manatron. It's not a just use of my time on a product that won't work."

County assessor Bob Hansen said staff has been "frustrated and struggling with this product all along."

It was supposed to have been fully operational in 2008. As deadlines came and went, county board members expressed their growing concern about the company's lack of a response to their dissatisfaction.

"We have no choice," said commissioner Don Carlson. "We must sever our ties with them."

The county will immediately reinstate its agreement with ACS so it can get tax statements out to property owners this winter.

Sarah Smith

Sarah Smith is the outdoors editor. She covers courts, business and breaking news in addition to outdoors events.

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