Editorial: County board’s broken record

$283K Microsoft settlement just the latest in a series of wasteful financial mishaps for Winnebago County government

‘Winnebago County owes x to y because z.”

Fill in the blanks, folks. This time, it’s $283,000 to Microsoft because of what has been termed “human error” in hundreds of county computers being christened with unlicensed software.

The county’s contracted chief information officer (CIO), Gus Gentner, explained to the county board that much of the costs racked up could be explained by the simple mistake of an employee “accidentally” activating a more expensive copy of Microsoft Office.

For Gentner’s sake, the contract he signed in 2013 alleviates him of any costly burdens from such a tragic oversight in his department. Not bad for 100-hour-a-month gig that last year paid him $139,400.

Chairman Scott Christiansen, in an email to county board members last week, touted the revenues produced by Gentner’s work for the county: “…due to the efforts of Mr. Gentner and his department, Winnebago County brings in over $200k in annual revenue, as our IT department serves as support for the City of Loves Park, Loves Park Fire and Police, the Village of Rockton, the Chicago-Rockford International Airport, the City of South Beloit, Boone County Courts, Circuit Clerk and States Attorney, and the Village of Winnebago, just to name a few.” [sic]

That’s great! That’s money generated by providing a necessary service to the county’s seemingly endless bodies of government! Of course, now all of those governments have to be concerned with whether or not they’re soon to be on the hook of Microsoft’s compliance office.

Back to the county government, though: who’s at fault for this latest shameful blunder? Surely the person overseeing the entire department, right? Not according to the chairman.

“It is significant to point out that a number of these failures to license were a result of software installations taking place either prior to Mr. Gentner’s tenure or from departments not under his supervision. In any case, Mr. Gentner did not personally install or configure any software.”

So we come to back to the “human error” argument here, which, sure, maybe could work. Many of us, having installed or updated software hundreds of times, know the myriad windows and buttons one must click to get through such a task. That said, none of us here can remember ever accidentally installing Microsoft Office Professional when we purchased Microsoft Office Standard, and IT professionals we talked to said such a “mistake” would be met with a screen prompting you to pay more for the software you’re attempting to install, not letting you slide by and hoping that you’ll cough up the difference at a later date.

So maybe the “accident” line – the $283,000 accident that ultimately no one is responsible for at all – doesn’t stand up. That’s okay, because Christiansen offered another possible reason for the SNAFU in his email:

“Driven in large part by the mandatory upgrade of Windows XP to Windows 8.1, the review resulted in a settlement offer to become compliant, received by the County on April 25, 2016, in the amount of $283,423.” He added, “It is important to note that this offer is a settlement amount; not a fine, and this is a cost the County should have been paying all along.”

So it was driven by mandatory OS upgrades and not by hundreds of employees going renegade and trying to snag a little bit better version of their productivity software without anyone noticing, and it’s okay because it’s not a fine; just a settlement.

One might say this is a case of mixed messaging, while others may say it’s just an unfortunate accident.

The funny thing is, nowhere in his email to the board does Christiansen mention the reason his CIO has given (accident, human error) as being the cause behind this $283,000 problem, a cost which, the chairman reassures us, the taxpayers should’ve been covering already.

So far, the county has paid $113,000 to Microsoft as part of the settlement. The final total will be split up across the county’s departments to help alleviate the budget hit, one which could and should have been prevented in the first place.

Sadly, the “What, me worry?” reasoning for an endless stream of financial blunders seems to be the only solution on offer from the chairman. Board members have been pressing for massive overhauls to the county’s spending structures since news of the FBI’s ongoing investigation first broke last year. So far, most have centered on the so-called Host Fee and the chairman’s discretionary budget.

But for some in Winnebago County’s government, it seems that any number of completely embarrassing failures will be allowed to continue unabated. Case in point: owing Microsoft a $283,000 lump sum for something that could and should have been managed better from the start.

Why excuse it? And why is there no one to blame? How is the de facto department head – even though, in this case, Gentner is allowed to operate on a contract basis – not ultimately responsible for such a tremendous oversight? How does the chairman continue to skip past these massive gaffes without offering real solutions of his own?

Gentner’s contract – one which was renewed in 2013 by a voice vote and whose stipulations many county board members were unaware of until recently – may protect him in this case, but it should be a warning going forward. If indications are correct, that will most certainly be the case.

Sources have told The Times this week that the board doesn’t intend to wait for the next quarter-million dollar mistake to come down the line. Steps to bring proposals to the floor are already underway.

Resolutions proposing that the CIO position become a full-time one, appointed with the consent and full consideration of the board, have been drafted. In addition, outside IT contracts will be subject to a bidding process, and the Operations Committee will oversee contract liabilities and contract negotiations with outside agents.

Good steps but overdue, as we’ve come to expect of the many solutions to the county’s haphazard and unchecked spending practices. It’s a time to finally and fully wipe the slate clean. It’s yet another reason to implement base budgeting.

Everyone wants to live in a world where a man’s word is his bond and you can trust a handshake. But that can no longer work when we’re talking about the finances of Winnebago County. We’re way past trusting anything anymore. That’s when legislation becomes not only preferable, but mandatory as a matter of course. The board has to act now. Stop spinning the broken record.

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