By Bob Zientara
Barron County Board members will meet June 17, 2019, to figure out a way to fit an unexpected $422,000 expense into the county’s next four annual budgets, to pay the cost of a law enforcement software package that supports 911 emergency communications, reports and investigative materials used by Barron County Sheriff’s deputies, and the functions of the Barron County Jail.
The meeting will be preceded by a public hearing, required by law, to allow citizen review of the plan to borrow the necessary money and pay it off over time out of county resources – including property taxes.
The June 17 meeting will culminate a six-week process that began in late April, when the county found it owed almost $89,000 of unbudgeted money to Salt Lake City, Utah-based Spillman Technologies (a subsidiary of Motorola Corp.).
It was the first of four annual payments in a contract signed by the Sheriff’s Department – but unapproved by the County Board. The contract commits Barron County and four municipal police departments (including Barron, Chetek, Turtle Lake and Cumberland), to pay three quarters of a million dollars to Spillman over a five-year span that started in 2018 and expires in February 2022.
When it meets later on June 17, the County Board is also expected to discuss a set of recommendations reached after a contentious Executive Committee meeting Friday, June 7.
After an hour-long session that included some spirited exchanges of opinion, the committee members said they want the full County Board to make sure county staff members:
• Follow the proper chain of command and improve communication between department heads and county administration, to prevent this from happening again.
• Fix problems with the software – at both the county and municipal levels – as a condition of payment.
• Give administrators the flexibility to pay the contract out of existing cash reserves or borrow to pay it off over time.
Emails, phone calls
and board meetings
The June 7 meeting started with an exchange between committee (and County Board) chair Louie Okey, Dist. 16, Birchwood area, and Barron County Sheriff’s Chief Deputy Jason Leu regarding issues with the contract.
Referring to (unpublished) email exchanges between the departments, Okey said the messages “were inappropriate.”
Okey told Leu that Jeff French, county administrator, is “your boss. If he requests something, you need to tell him.”
Leu responded that in his email, he asked “who’s requesting the information (and that) we’ll get back to them.”
“It’s not your job to ask,” Okey replied. “I’ve been supportive of this (software) plan (but) there’s too much smoke around this. I’m suspicious.”
“We’re suspicious because no one ever asks us,” Leu said.
Okey said Leu attended meetings at which the contract was discussed.
“There’s a chain of command and you should know that,” he said.
Leu defended the process.
“We’ve always included everyone,” he said. “This contract is the only time we’ve not acted like other departments, (but) how can we do this if we’re not communicated with?”
There was further discussion about the merits and defects of the current software and the system the county used to have before it and the four municipal departments switched to the new package.
Okey said he had heard “rumors that the local (police departments) don’t like Spillman.”
Fitzgerald replied that timing was part of the problem.
“We had to go live (with Spillman) or pay another year of maintenance to (the former software provider) during the Closs case,” he said.
But the benefits are already showing up, Fitzgerald added.
“This is the first time that we and the municipal (police departments) have been on the same page – except for (the village of) Cameron, which bought a smaller version (of the software),” he said.
Later, both Fitzgerald and Leu told the committee that the software connects Barron County to similar systems in counties across the state, makes investigations virtually paperless, and has streamlined jail functions.
Fitzgerald apologized for the difficulties.
“I learned a lot by missing the contract – it’s not my style to let Jeff and Jodi (Busch, county finance director) down,” he said.
French later noted he’d accepted the apology – orally and in writing.
“We need resiliency in this organization,” French said. “As (the county’s) day-to-day leader, I have to work with every department head. There can be no animosity after this plan goes into effect.”
Later, Barron County corporation counsel John Muench explained state law regarding the authority of the county sheriff (an elective office) as opposed to other county department heads.
Because Barron County has an administrator who reports to the board of supervisors, that position has responsibility and authority over the Sheriff’s Department, but only insofar as budgeting is concerned, he said.
State law says that because they are elected officials, sheriffs are responsible only to the governor and the voters in terms of job performance and internal department functions, Muench added.
Budget fixes and choices
Executive Committee members then turned their attention to how to fix the budget problem.
Busch and French both noted that the county is about to pay off debt on the $11 million County Justice Center, “which gives us the cash to make good” on the Spillman contract.
“We have not compiled our 2020 budget yet, but I want some options,” French added, asking the committee to give administrators the flexibility to pay the contract out of cash reserves or issuing new debt to pay for it.
Part of the fix will include letting Spillman know that the contract isn’t valid until the County Board agrees it is, as well as getting Spillman to fix glitches dscovered on both the county and municipal levels, he added.
There was brief discussion of hiring a lawyer to represent the county, but Executive Committee members later agreed to keep the lines of communication with Spillman open, without reverting to legal options.
“Do we have to go to outside legal counsel if we don’t think we have a working relationship with Spillman?” asked Supervisor Karolyn Bartlett, Dist. 5, Dallas.
“There is (another option),” French replied. “You can have me pick up the phone and ask (Spillman executives) to address the County Board or, maybe, a special Executive Committee meeting.”
Recalling a similar problem in the past when he was county finance director, French said former County Board Chair Jess Miller fixed a contract problem with a single phone call to the provider.
“I agree with Karolyn,” said Supervisor Don Horstman, County Board vice chair, Dist. 26, Cumberland. “Attorneys are expensive.”
Supervisor Marv Thompson, Dist. 20, Rice Lake, agreed.
“I am thinking that if we deal with Spillman directly, they’d be a little more at ease and (we can) straighten things out without the threat,” he said.
“We can always (hire an attorney) later,” and, for now, “play nice,” Okey said.
“We can always play nasty (later),” Thompson said.
At the committee meeting, Muench pointed out that, even if the Spillman contract might lack validity, it still includes language over how the county must go about ending the agreement, including a 30-day termination clause.
Whatever the county does, it still needs to pay Spillman for whatever software services it uses before it signs or cancels the contract, he added.
The committee later OK’d a provision that spells out what department heads can and cannot do regarding contracts.
“I think that language should be highlighted in red,” Okey said. “This is part of a corrective action plan.”
Bartlett asked that an “education piece” be added to departmental budget rules.
Bartlett’s recommendation was seconded by Supervisor Russell Rindsig, Dist. 17, Haugen area, and approved by voice vote.