augusta free press news

Operation MUNIS sees progress

The Top Story by Chris Graham

The talk of the 2005 election cycle in Staunton wasn’t focused on the heated gubernatorial race pitting Tim Kaine against Jerry Kilgore at the top of the ticket or any of the other state races.
It was instead on the delays in the installation of a new financial-management software system to be used by the city treasurer and commissioner of the revenue offices.

City Hall officials pinned the blame for the delays on the shoulders of the incumbent revenue commissioner, Ray Ergenbright – and the local news media and in the end the voters concurred with their assessment.

Fast forward to today, four months after Maggie Ragon’s upset win over Ergenbright, who served as the commissioner of the revenue for 12 years, and it appears that the change that was made has resulted in significant movement on the software-installation front.

“There are still some kinks in the system – some things that we’re stuck on and still have to work out a little bit as far as the data conversion is concerned. But by all accounts, at least in my estimation, I think it’s going very well,” Ragon told The Augusta Free Press.

The revenue and treasurer offices and the city information-technology department have completed their work in getting the personal-property tax component of the MUNIS software system up and running. The activity now is in the areas of business-license data and real-estate tax data – with the expectation that work on those two elements and additional components regarding the conversion of data related to animal licenses and parking tickets will be completed by the summer.

The city’s IT director, Kurt Plowman, attributes the quickened pace to the willingness of the new revenue commissioner and the new treasurer, Rick Johnson, who unseated 16-year incumbent Elnora Hazlett in the November election, to work together as a team.

“We’ve had good discussions about the work flow – making some changes, finding some things that could be updated a little more efficiently. It’s been nice to see Maggie and Rick working well together to try to understand the issues and look at what’s best from the customer-service perspective. From my third-party perspective, it looks like they’re working well together,” Plowman told the AFP.

“We’ve actually really good, productive team meetings. We can discuss things that honestly we could never really have been discussed in an adult fashion – in a professional fashion – before. We can actually have a good discussion around the table and work out solutions and have proposals and throw ideas out and work them around – what you would expect to see in a professional business setting. We couldn’t have those kinds of discussions before without personalities getting in the way,” Plowman said.

The issues with the installation of MUNIS came on the heels of the decision by Staunton City Council last spring to scrap another financial-management software system, RMASS, largely at the urging of Ergenbright – who raised concerns over the ability of the RMASS system to protect and secure confidential taxpayer information.

“The software was not capable of handling the processes that needed to be done – and that’s what I was fighting for,” Ergenbright told the AFP last week.

“I was trying to get the processes that were necessary to operate the office efficiently. And nobody could see that,” Ergenbright said.

That the fight initiated by Ergenbright led to the decision to forego three years of work and $150,000 committed to one software system and led to the delays in the installation of its replacement was a central message in Ragon’s campaign for the revenue office last year.

The news this week is that the $300,000 figure associated with the cost of work on both systems might grow as the finishing touches are put on the MUNIS system this spring and this summer. City manager Bob Stripling told the AFP that the project is likely to come in over budget when all is said and done – and that he expects that he will have to go to city council at some point in the next few months to request additional monies to cover the overruns.

“It took a lot more effort in terms of needing to have MUNIS officials on site to work through our initial efforts related to the conversion of personal-property-tax information last year,” Stripling said.

Stripling said he is “pleased” with where the project is at this stage.

“The commissioner and the treasurer have been very cooperative. The entire team has done a great job to get this project moving,” Stripling said.

Johnson, an accountant who came to the treasurer’s office with experience in working with MUNIS and other financial-management software systems, told the AFP that the progress in getting the new system up and running has not come without some fits and starts.

“We’re still going through some growing pains with the system – as you would anytime you implement a new system. Anytime you have converted data, you’re going to have issues to deal with. We’re working through some pitfalls associated with that. But we’re moving forward – and we’re dedicated to getting the city as much as possible on one system,” Johnson said.

Johnson, echoing Plowman, talked up the cooperative spirit that has existed between the various players in the conversion project.

“I think it’s been a group effort. We’ve got a ways to go, but we’re making strides every day. And it’s been through a group effort. I think those relationships are solid, and hopefully they’ll continue that way,” Johnson said.

Ragon is very much on the same page.

“We all meet – the city manager, IT, finance, the treasurer’s office and my office – on a regular basis just to kind of keep each other abreast of what’s going on with MUNIS and what are the questions that we have and what are the things that we need to work on. It’s been a very friendly atmosphere and a lot of cooperation – and of course between the commissioner and treasurer’s office, it’s really seamless at this point,” Ragon said.

(Originally published 03-06-06)