The last time the Vermont Judiciary bought a computer system it was 1990. Two decades later, officials felt it was time for a technology upgrade.
"We're in a new age. Technology is no longer a secondary issue. It's a central issue for all of state government," said Rep. Bill Lippert, D-Judiciary Committee.
So three years ago, the judiciary started working with a Utah-based company called New Dawn Technologies to convert the old system to a modern, web-based case management system. If it had worked as advertised, the $5 million JUST WARE program would have allowed everyone, from state troopers to court clerks, to access information 24/7.
"During the first two years we could sense that the project was not moving as quickly as we'd like it to," Vt. Court Administrator Bob Greemore said.
Officials invested $1.7 million in taxpayers' dollars to keep the project afloat. Nine months ago, those payments stopped when the judiciary pulled out of the contract, citing concerns the software didn't work and would take far too long to start saving the state money. Now they're nearly $2 million in the hole and have nothing to show for it.
"This was a totally new technology and there is no residual parts of it that we can use," Greemore said. "It was one of those things that it had to be done in order for it to be usable."
Judiciary officials say they hired a reputable technology company, but admit New Dawn had never designed a court computer system before. Legislators say this highlights a bigger problem in state government.
"I think there's a need for greater coordination and maybe a higher level of expertise in terms of vetting the contracts that are let for technology," Lippert said.
This meltdown comes as the judiciary is also struggling to reconcile a $2 million budget gap.
"Budgets are guesses to what will happen. Sometimes is just doesn't work out," said Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington County.
Officials say an overestimation of in vacancy savings is to blame. Built into every budget is the cost associated with retirees. In the judiciary, that number typically hovers around 40. Last year only 14 employees left, which accounts for 70 percent of the overspending. Lawmakers say the judiciary will have to ask the Legislature for a budget adjustment in January.
"I'm very concerned about the way we seem to be operating," Sears said.
Lawmakers say although communications between the three branches of government have improved in recent years, the work needs to continue so Appropriations knows where it what it can fund and where it can cut.
"I think we all need to do a better job," Sears said.
The judiciary is in the process of trying to get out of this contract with the software company. The attorney general's office is now negotiating with New Dawn. Officials say it's unlikely the state will recover the $1.7 million already spent. And it will be a few more months before they know if Vermont will be required to pay the remaining $3.3 million for a product that will never be used.
The judiciary is not alone in its overspending and technology struggles. Both are actually common problems. Lawmakers say the Department of Corrections overspent by $4 million-$5 million due to a higher number of pretrial detainees in the system and the state hospital's relocation to Southern State Correctional Facility. They also say that Corrections and the Department of Motor Vehicles have run into major problems overhauling their computer systems.
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