The Tarrant Appraisal District did not clearly outline business and technical requirements for new computer software, and then did not adequately test it before flipping the switch for a mass appraisal of property, according to an audit released Friday.
As a result, more than two years after going live with the troubled Aumentum software that TAD agreed to buy five years ago, there were about 50 “broad” requirements still unfulfilled as of October, according to a report to TAD’s executive board by the Weaver and Tidwell accounting firm.
TAD’s board requested the audit after a series of software snafus were blamed for leaving millions of dollars of property off the books in 2015 and causing a surge of taxpayer refunds late this year after the software produced tax rolls that didn’t catch critical changes in accounts.
It certainly explains why the conversion of the software was such a disaster for everybody.
Tarrant County Tax Assessor-Collector Ron Wright
Tarrant County Tax Assessor-Collector Ron Wright called the audit’s findings “explosive,” saying it contained crucial information that the board had not heard before. He criticized Thomson Reuters, which TAD hired to install the system, because the auditors said the company offered “limited cooperation.”
“It certainly explains why the conversion of the software was such a disaster for everybody,” Wright said. “It explains a lot and the question now is how do we go forward because there has to be accountability for this. But I won’t mask my disappointment with both TAD management and, in particular, Thomson Reuters.”
TAD Chief Appraiser Jeff Law said the software conversion clearly could have gone better. He said the agency has taken steps to improve communication with taxing entities to help them deal with the software conversion. His staff also meets monthly with representatives of Wright’s office.
But Law added that the agency already has, and will continue, to hold Thomson Reuters accountable for any more problems. The agency agreed to pay $1.9 million for the software in 2011 but has withheld about $806,000. Thomson Reuters also has reimbursed TAD about $794,000 for late implementation.
Anytime you have a complex software system like ours, [a conversion] is not an easy task; it is going to have challenges.
TAD Chief Appraiser Jeff Law
“Anytime you have a complex software system like ours, [a conversion] is not an easy task; it is going to have challenges,” Law said. “I think, with the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to go back and say we could have done this and we could have done this.”
Thomson Reuters spokesman Paul Thies disagrees that his firm didn’t cooperate with Weaver and Tidwell’s audit, which was conducted from the beginning of May until the end of October.
He said the company provided the auditors with hundreds of pages of documents detailing system conversion plans, requirements and testing. Thomson Reuters also met with the auditors twice but admittedly didn’t allow them to meet with system analysts and development teams because they were too busy serving customers.
“I would say that Thomson Reuters responded to all reasonable requests from Weaver,” said Thies, a vice president for business communications. “Obviously, when you do a large software migration like this, there are going to be challenges, we recognize that. But we have been very forthcoming in working with TAD to address those issues and make resources available.”
The audit was presented to the TAD board by Brian Thomas, a partner at Weaver and Tidwell.
TAD entered into a contract with Manatron to buy new software to replace its legacy mainframe appraisal system in 2011. Thomson Reuters bought Manatron in 2012 and replaced Manatron’s Government Revenue Management products suite with Aumentum.
Originally, the Aumentum software was to “go live” in October 2013, but problems with the conversion pushed back the start date until October 2014. Despite the delay, troubles continued. After teh system went live, there were still more than 110 broad system requirements that needed to be met, the audit states.
But even before that, the audit indicated that there wasn’t a detailed plan for business and functionality requirements before selecting the system, and that TAD did not describe to Thomson Reuters some of the statutory requirements that needed to be provided to the county’s taxing entities.
It never should have happened. … They should have made sure it was right.
Tarrant County Tax Assessor-Collector Ron Wright
Even as TAD worked on implementing the conversion, it did not conduct a stakeholder analysis with taxing entities such as the cities and school districts, the audit states. Wright and others at Tarrant County have complained about the lack of communication with TAD.
“We could have done a much better job communicating to our stakeholders. We have actually apologized to them,” Law said.
TAD and Thomson Reuters also did not clearly delineate who would be responsible for checking out the system before it went online, leading to overall “inadequate testing,” the audit states. Thomson Reuters also did not conduct system integration testing, the report states.
While individuals within TAD were well aware of problems with the software, there was no formal assessment of readiness conducted and “Go-Live proceeded as scheduled even though the number of unresolved critical faults increased” the audit states.
“It never should have happened. … They should have made sure it was right,” Wright said.
Since problems with the software became known earlier this year, TAD and Thomson Reuters have taken initiatives to ensure better performance, including creating a joint Blue Chips Taskforce to track, resolve and implement fixes that address critical and high priority “bugs,” and requests.
To make sure that things do get fixed appropriately, it was suggested during the audit presentation that a third party should be hired to oversee what else needs to happen with the conversion, an idea Wright supported.
“I think that is something we need to seriously consider,” Wright said.