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County phases in new court computer system

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Nearly three years after pulling the plug on a new court computer system and having to eat some expenses, Rutherford County is phasing in a different system, one well-traveled in Tennessee.

TNCIS, a program developed by the nonprofit Local Government Data Processing Corp. and the Tennessee Administrative Office of the Courts, went live in Circuit Court in April and General Sessions Court in May before starting up in Juvenile Court on June 5.

Circuit Court Clerk Melissa Harrell calls it "a work in progress," and though she acknowledges the conversion comes with its share of "hiccups," they're nothing like the problems the Court Clerk's Office ran into with the previous conversion effort in 2014.

That involved the installation of a new hardware and software under former Circuit Court Clerk Laura Bohling, whom Harrell defeated in the 2014 Republican primary. Harrell chose to move ahead with the system Bohling was putting into place in September three years ago, but the county never could make it work properly and ran into numerous headaches, primarily with financial matters involving payments of fines, fees and even child support.

Under an agreement approved by the commission, the county is paying $233,000 the first year for TNCIS and $67,575 for annual support and maintenance.

The system is approved by the Tennessee Comptroller's Office and is used in 84 counties across the state. The Clerk and Master's Office in Rutherford County as well as the Budget & Finance Office use Local Government computer programs.

Harrell says she spent considerable time working with those county offices, as well as talking with Mayor Ernest Burgess and meeting with her own staff, Local Government's Bruce Collier and the AOC's Ann Lynn Walker before moving forward.

"I didn't do this by myself," says Harrell, who is quick to call it a team effort.

The new program has its share of quirks, such as a different language, she says, but it also offers training manuals for every employee and a sample field for dealing with complex cases where staff can make sure they enter information correctly before saving it.

The new program's benefits far outweigh any negative aspects, according to Harrell, and it is expected to save staff time while improving services for the public.

For example, TNCIS creates reports in the exact format the state requests each month, and those don't have to be put together manually because the information continually updates itself, Harrell says. As a result, month-end reports can be done in half a day, instead of weeks.

Likewise, hundreds of tickets written by the Tennessee Highway Patrol will be entered automatically instead of by hand, a process the office is still perfecting, she says.

In addition, when state fines and fees change, the system will update automatically, based on state law, according to Harrell.

Eventually, a web inquiry will be available, as well, in addition to e-filing. Attorneys will be able to file cases online, and the general public will be able to look up any piece of information that is an open record, Harrell says.

"That's the way the world is headed, and we want to ride that boat too," she says.

The county could even charge subscriptions for case filing or for online inquiries, but Harrell says, "We've chosen not to do that."

Another convenience will be credit card payment people can make online to pay fines or fees, she says.

How the county got here

Rutherford County government spent more than $1.22 million and three years on the New Dawn system before unplugging it in November 2014. The Rutherford County Commission eventually approved a settlement with Journal Technologies, formerly New Dawn Technologies of Utah, under which it paid the county $250,000 to end the arrangement. Ultimately, the county lost about $480,000 for a system that never worked the way officials hoped.

The county went back to General Services Automated, a company it had used since the early 1980s, when the New Dawn system went defunct.

"It's as if it never existed from an audit standpoint," says Brian Robertson, director of the county Office of Information Technology, referring to the New Dawn software.

Rutherford County Mayor Ernest Burgess acknowledges making mistakes in purchasing the New Dawan system. But he points out the Circuit Court Clerk is a constitutional officer, and Bohling, in that position, felt the New Dawn system would meet the courts' needs better than TNCIS.

"I guess a few of us, including me, didn't do our homework," Burgess says. "We got a substantial part of our money back, so we didn't spend the whole enchilada."

Bohling has maintained consistently she should have been involved in the transition after she left office but was not asked to help. She still believes the New Dawn system could have worked.

Harrell, who started looking for an alternative as soon as the county switched back to the GSA system, prefers to move on from the situation with New Dawn and the debacles that took place when she entered office in September 2014.

Local attorneys and court clerk workers say they expect the program conversion to go much smoother than the one three years ago.

Even with a few quirks and cleanups, Harrell points out the new system is easier to read and "very neat and professional."

"It's been a scary ordeal, but it's been a good one," she says.

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