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Commissioners to Assessor: ‘No more wasting money’

MONTESANO — The Grays Harbor County commissioners on Monday approved spending $125,000 in state grant funds for a packaged program for a Computer Assisted Mass Appraisal system, rebuffing attempts by Assessor Rick Hole to use the grant funds to finish a customized software package that he’s been spearheading since he first took office three years ago. The software is important since the state is mandating all counties move to an annual revaluation cycle and statistical modeling will be used to figure out those details.

County Commissioner Wes Cormier says the decision on how Hole should run his office, and ultimately the computer programs within it, remain entirely his. He just won’t get any more funds from the county or the state, for that matter, to finish his job and would have to rely on his department’s budget to do it all.

Hole says he’ll need to meet with the county commissioners again to figure the next steps.

“Giving additional emphasis to the commissioners’ wish to have a third party system, I have agreed to take another look at canned software systems to determine if the county and this department will gain efficiency and additional effectiveness from moving that direction,” Hole wrote in an email.

Cormier said that he heard from state Revenue officials on Friday that if the county doesn’t spend the $125,000 by the end of the year then the money goes back to the state.

“We actually have to spend the money,” Cormier said. “That gives us just a few weeks to go buy a program.”

County Commissioner Frank Gordon says he’s tired of arguing over the situation: “No more wasting money.”

Cormier says he feels comfortable giving the assessor, a separate elected official, instructions on what the funding can be used for since a function of the county commissioners is to approve funding and contracts.

Cormier said that he saw a price estimate for a workable program for $180,000 — which covers not just the Assessor’s Office, but the Treasurer’s Office, too. The program likely has an annual maintenance fee, as well.

Last week, he met with the county commissioners and tried to convince them to let him use the leftover state grant funds to finish his customized software package. But that would cost another $64,800 — at a minimum — to complete the software and it won’t be ready to go until June. Cormier points out that because the funding needs to be committed by the end of the year, none of the state grant funds would be eligible for the program Hole wants to complete and the county would be on the hook using its general fund dollars to complete a program no one knows will really work.

“Instead, we can join with another county’s bid and just buy a program we all know will work,” Cormier said.

At this point, the county has spent about $163,000 to build a program. Hole provided revised figures showing that his office had received $160,000 in state grant funds. However, there’s $125,000 in uncommitted grant funds out there, which the county has now allocated for a “canned program” and forbidden Hole to use for his concept.

Hole notes the original estimates for the revaluation program went as high as $408,000 at one point and the county was getting a bargain.

Hole spent a nearly 90-minute long special meeting last Thursday morning going over a review of what his program should be able to do. The only problem, county computer programmer Ron Malizia noted, is that hardly anything is working.

At one point, Hole said last week that he had dreamed of a software package that would convert voice descriptions to text using a device out in the field that would input it all into an online site automatically. At this point, though, not even the basics of the program have been complete — despite attempts at creating the software dating back to July of 2012. Gordon has asked the State Auditor to look at fraud charges for one of the former consultants. And he’s also asked for Hole’s resignation because of the situation.

Current software consultant Bernie Benson notes there’s been “two other failed attempts” to do what he started to do in August, however, Benson did bring on board one of the first consultants Gordon has accused of fraud.

At last week’s meeting, Malizia practically begged Hole to just bite the bullet and stop fighting the commissioners.

“Please re-look at a canned package,” Malizia told Hole, repeating a statement he had consistently made throughout the meeting. “I don’t want us to be down the road six months from now and it’s still not done. It might not have all of the bells and whistles you like, but it will be a more stable package.”

Even Benson told the commissioners he would completely understand if they went with an out-of-the-box system.

“Do what you think is best for the county,” Benson told them Thursday morning.

Gordon invited the county’s budget staff, as well as Treasurer Ron Strabbing and Auditor Vern Spatz to chime in.

Strabbing said he didn’t really care one way or another what happens, so long as the deadlines are met, which they haven’t been. And that impacts his office.

Spatz said it didn’t make any sense at all to have the county design its own software package when there’s boxed software out there that would likely be better fitting for all of the county’s offices.

County Commissioner Herb Welch said he felt that he had been sold a bill of goods, with promises that the software would do one thing and it ended up doing something else entirely and isn’t even working. For one thing, Welch pointed out, the consultant is suggesting a $24,000 annual maintenance fee on the package — when the whole reason the county was building its own software was to avoid annual maintenance costs.

“Would you consider going with a canned program at this point?” Cormier asked Hole at the end of the meeting.

“I believe the in-house system is the right system and it’s the path forward that will deliver and my listening better to the appraisers will give us confidence in the work plan of the appraisers that we need,” Hole said.

Caroline Perry, a member of the Board of Equalization, told the commissioners and Hole she was worried that the county may be underestimating the problems that the customized system could be facing and that if the issue isn’t settled soon it may delay the public’s right to appeal their valuations.