December 22, 2014

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Lorain court losing its software support

LORAIN — City officials are considering suing Virginia-based AMCAD, which sold Lorain Municipal Court its court management software, after the company announced in June that it was shutting down the division that provided the software.

The closure has left Clerk of Courts Lori Maiorana with a crumbling computer system she said her deputy clerks can barely access and the city on the hook for the balance of a $425,000 loan.

Chief Deputy Auditor Anita Harper said the city still owes $225,000 on the five-year loan it took out in 2012 to cover the purchase of the software and support package.

“We borrowed the money, paid AMCAD and now we’re repaying the bank for the loan,” Auditor Ron Mantini said.

Maiorana said she was shocked when she received an email from AMCAD CEO Richard Lowrey on June 23 announcing the company was “exiting the justice software solutions business.”

“They were here the Thursday before asking what they could do to help me,” Maiorana said, adding that she’d complained for months about problems with the software, including that it wouldn’t produce the proper financial recordkeeping documents.

Although the contract with AMCAD was signed in 2012, the system didn’t go live until October 2013. The switch touched off a separate legal dispute with the court’s old software provider, Henschen and Associates, that was settled last year.

In his email, Lowrey blamed the decision to close his company’s underperforming court software division in part on losing a $13 million contract in Oklahoma.

“In recent years, AMCAD has invested heavily in developing its justice solutions suite of products,” Lowrey wrote. “Despite this investment, this division has historically operated at negative cash flow levels and the recent termination of AMCAD’s contract with the Oklahoma Administrative Office of Court has exacerbated this situation.”

With additional losses expected, Lowrey wrote, the company was “streamlining the business today to sustain the operations that are cash flow generative.”

Calls to Lowrey and other company officials were not returned.

Although Lowrey’s email thanked her for her support of AMCAD, Maiorana said she’s received no support from the company since the email. She said she’s had to resort to hiring a former AMCAD employee at a rate of $85 per hour to try to fix some of the problems in the system.

Lorain isn’t alone. Warren has similar problems with its software, Maiorana said. Medina County officials also are considering a lawsuit against AMCAD, which the county had agreed in May to pay $242,286 to update its online court docket.

Lorain Municipal Court Judge Mark Mihok and Lorain Law Director Pat Riley both said they plan to attend a meeting the Ohio Supreme Court has called for July 25 to discuss options for those impacted by AMCAD’s closure.

“Obviously, we’re going to try to recover all or part of our contract price,” said Mihok, who also plans to meet in executive session with Maiorana, Riley and City Council next week.

In the meantime, Maiorana said, the problems in her office grow worse by the day because her deputy clerks are forced to do much of what they once did on a computer by hand. In one instance, she said, it took 45 minutes to process one traffic ticket.

“We are literally buried in paper,” she said.

Maiorana said the deputy clerks have been telling those paying tickets to keep their receipts and track how much they still owe because record-keeping has become so difficult.

“We can’t tell people what their balance is,” she said.

Although money taken in is still being deposited in the bank, Maiorana said she hasn’t been able to keep up with required financial documentation, which is making it difficult to comply with a routine audit by the state. Among issues the state auditors are looking at is the theft of court funds by former deputy clerk Sierra Dozier, who has pleaded guilty to state and federal charges.

Maiorana also said the problem is exacerbated by other issues, including a water line break that damaged records and the failure of Joe Pinter, her now-fired information systems administrator, to back up data since Feb. 28.

Maiorana also has blocked the public from accessing the court’s online record system because a flaw in the software was allowing secret arrest warrants to be viewed by anyone, an issue of concern for police. She said because the problem couldn’t be fixed, she had no choice but to cut off public access.

Without that website, the number of calls from criminal defendants and others seeking to find future court dates has swelled, both Maiorana and Mihok said.

Although that was a problem before, Mihok said, it was manageable because court staff could quickly look up the information. The issues with the computer system also have meant that sometimes people are told to come into court daily to check to see if they’re on the docket because they don’t have another way of getting the information.

Mihok said a defendant who is due in court shouldn’t need to ask the question because during his initial encounter with law enforcement, he was given a document with his court date. Each time a defendant comes to court, he’s given another piece of paper with the court date on it, the judge said.

“If you have a court date, that’s something very important,” Mihok said.

Maiorana said she isn’t certain whether the city can afford to buy a new software package, but Mihok said he doesn’t think there’s much choice.

“At some point, we probably have to change our operating system, which means we have to go through a search,” he said.

Contact Brad Dicken at 329-7147 or bdicken@chroniclet.com. Follow him on Twitter @BradDickenCT.