Thursday, April 24, 2003

Butler computer links long overdue

By Janice Morse and Steve Kemme
The Cincinnati Enquirer

HAMILTON - Is taxpayers' money being wasted on two computerization projects that are foundering?

That's a question some Butler County officials are asking.

Since August 2000, more than $2 million has been devoted to hardware and software for the Butler County Domestic Relations and Juvenile courts - but the projects still aren't finished.

"If a technology project lasts more than 18 months, you're in trouble," said Jerome Cook, administrator for the county's Clerk of Courts Office. "And here we are, still waiting for the two-year pregnancy of the elephant to be complete. ... That concerns us as members of the county Data Board, especially at a time when the county is in a budget crunch, and they're still throwing money at this."

Four years ago, the county commissioners scrapped a decade-long computerization project - after spending $1.4 million. Installation delays made the equipment obsolete even before it could be put to use - and the current computerization problems are creating an uncomfortable sense of deja vu.

"It's a mess," Commission President Michael A. Fox said Wednesday. "Domestic Relations Court started working on a court information project in 1989 - and they still don't have computerization."

Fox also lamented that the Domestic Relations Court isn't planning to connect its computer system to the Clerk of Courts' Office or be accessible to the public.

"It's an information system designed to make sure people don't get information. It's more for the private use of the judges and magistrates than anybody else."

Domestic Relations Court Administrator Linda Lovelace and Juvenile Court Administrator Rob Clevenger were both out of the office Wednesday and unavailable for comment, receptionists said.

The concerns, building for months, came to a head last Friday, Cook said. Jann Heffner, new executive director of the county Children Services Board, was in Cook's office learning more about some computer systems. Heffner also wanted to know the status of the Juvenile Court computer project, Cook said, because of Heffner's plans for sharing data with that court and with the clerk's office.

"We couldn't even answer her question for her, because it's been so long since we've heard from them," Cook said. So, on Monday, Cook sent a written request for an update on those systems' progress to Recorder Dan Crank, who is president of the county's Data Board. That board is state-mandated to oversee computer purchases for county government offices.

Crank said representatives of the Juvenile and Domestic Relations courts are expected to give reports on their computerization projects at the Data Board's next meeting, May 19.

Crank said he has confidence in the abilities of Greg Sullivan, who heads the county's Information Services, to make sure the projects progress as they should.

But Fox said the delays in computerizing Domestic Relations and Juvenile courts have prevented the county from having a complete system that connects all departments.

He said the Domestic Relations and Juvenile courts should not only be connected to the Clerk of Courts' Office but also to Children Services, the Child Support Enforcement Agency and other affiliated offices.

Without such a system in place, Cook said, "They probably have people in those offices who do nothing but re-enter data all day long. ... But if they had a system that was integrated, a lot of the data could be copied ... with the push of a button."

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