The Morrison County Board of Commissioners engaged in a lengthy discussion about possible new Computer Assisted Mass Appraisal (CAMA) software for the Land Services Department during its planning session, Tuesday.
Land Services Director Amy Kowalzek, County Assessor Jean Popp and IT Director Amy Middendorf brought the proposal forward for discussion. The current software being used, Avenu, is nearly 30 years old and, at times, does not interface well with the county’s Harris tax statement software.
“What it helps with is, it creates a series of values for like properties,” Kowalzek said. “It also provides quality control within the software through reports and edits that we can make to look at everything on a mass scale.”
It also serves as the vehicle to import valuation data into the tax system for generation of the tax statements and the actual amounts someone has to pay.
The total cost to implement the new software would be $167,212.50 paid over the course of a five-year initial contract. About $68,442.50 for conversion of data and delivery would be due in 2022, the first year of the contract. That would be followed in 2023 with a price tag of $24,692.50 — for annual maintenance and support — before a charge of $24.692.50 plus a $3,840 archive fee in years three through five, 2024 - 2026.
In 2012, the Minnesota Counties Computer Co-op (MCCC) began contract negotiations with Avenu for an updated version of the original software. Those aimed for delivery of that software in 2017.
The total for that was going to be $195,340, so $140,000 was earmarked by the county in 2012 — and remains as such — in the Recorder’s Compliance Fund. A former county assessor also transferred about $40,000 to the capital equipment fund to help pay for the upgrade.
“So, we have about $180,000 sitting in capital equipment and the compliance fund for this project,” Kowalzek said.
That contract fell apart as the company was unable to deliver on the new product. That has forced every county that has Avenu at the moment to look at alternative CAMA software; though MCCC was able to negotiate extended support on existing software through 2023.
As a result of Avenu essentially no longer being a player, MCCC put out a request for proposal (RFP) to companies interested in providing CAMA services to member counties. The only viable option of those was with Vanguard, which was offered the contract. It has declined to enter into it, however, as it is interested in contracting with individual counties rather than a blanket MCCC contract.
“Really, what it comes down to is, Morrison County’s CAMA option is Vanguard; that’s really what it is,” Kowalzek said. “Because we’re only shopping for a CAMA-only software. They’re the only vendor that has that, that actually meets our needs.”
Vanguard currently delivers CAMA services in six states, including Minnesota. The Vision product, which is what the county is looking at, has been provided to counties in Minnesota since 1991. Kowalzek said there are currently 25 Minnesota clients being served by Vanguard, with 12 of those also using a Harris tax system, as Morrison County would.
“Vanguard has been known to talk very nicely with the tax software,” Kowalzek said. “That hasn’t been the case with our Avenu software all of the time, and we have had to tap outside IT sources when we’ve had some hangups with our data moving over.”
She said having something more stable was of high importance when selecting a new CAMA provider.
Another highlight, she said, is Vanguard’s easy building sketch capability. She said the current system features a “pretty rudimentary” capability, making it tough to do and make the computer-aided sketch actually look like a building. The sketching capability within Vanguard is “leaps and bounds” ahead of that and easy to use, she said.
It also imports well with the county’s GIS mapping server, Beacon.
“In the office, all of that parcel data comes together in this tax software,” Kowalzek said. “If we have something scanned into Application Extender, it talks to Application Extender and just pulls that document in with a click. Then it also talks to our Beacon software, so when we want to see a parcel map or something, we don’t have to have all three of those programs open. We’re utilizing that through the Vanguard system.”
Kowalzek said implementing Vanguard would also do away with the necessity for staff to manually import permitting data from Planning and Zoning into each parcel that has activity. That, too, can all be imported directly through Vanguard.
There would, however, be some additional IT infrastructure needs in order to be ready for the transition. Middendorf said a purchase of $3,600 would be anticipated for an SQL server.
“We do have the funds for that,” Kowalzek said. “Because we have $180,000, we’re spending $167,000 at the most, so we would have the funding within the capital equipment and/or the compliance fund to cover that buy.”
The ongoing annual expense for the SQL service would be $1,200, pending a Microsoft renewal agreement. That would be for 2024 - 2026, then Middendorf said the contract with Microsoft would be renewed going forward.
Beginning in year six, it is estimated to be $19,990 per year for annual service along with the archive service. That would be budgeted for within the Land Services budget. The current annual service fee with Avenu is $14,060.
“That is bare bones,” Kowalzek said. “There’s no enhancement, there’s no nothing. It’s really to make sure that it continues to exist and that they update if we have a change in tax law.”
Kowalzek plans to bring the contract forward for approval at the Board’s June 22 meeting. The goal is to be ready for final conversion and staff training in April 2022, after valuation statements go out in March.
Commissioner Randy Winscher asked if Vanguard was hesitant to enter into a contract with MCCC, like Avenu was, because the rate would be lower. Popp said that was not the case. Instead, that decision was aimed at being able to offer clients more individualized service.
“When MCCC does that, they try to keep everyone standardized in this box,” Popp said. “So, say we have something that’s a little different than somebody else, I want to enter that in a little bit different. Without that contract, I have the ability to do that. With that contract I will be limited to what they have.”
Popp said she was “very happy” with Vanguard. She felt they were the easiest group to work with and had a pleasant experience with the company during the initial discussion phase.
“The parts of this that give me a little bit of heartburn is the fact that it’s almost like we’re in a default position because this is the only system out of five that, basically, kind of, made the cut that actually works,” said Commissioner Greg Blaine. “But, I also trust in all three of you as professionals in what you do. I don’t do what you do and I’m not a technology person. I have to rely on you, so I’m happy that this is something that you support and you’re comfortable with.”
Board of Commissioners Briefs:
In other business Tuesday, the Morrison County Board of Commissioners:
• Discussed various ways American Recovery Plan (ARP) money could be spent, when it is received. County Administrator Deb Gruber and Commissioner Jeffrey Jelinski talked about what was discussed in regard to ARP at a Minnesota Counties district meeting, Monday.
“Every county heavily talked broadband,” Jelinski said.
Gruber added many discussed the timing and what rules might change or develop as the funding is rolled out. Ultimately, there are still several unknowns surrounding that federal funding.
“I think there are a number of opportunities,” Gruber said. “We talked briefly about internal versus external, about looking inward instead of outward. Some counties took a major outward approach when it came to their public CARES dollars and made sure that they invested back into opportunities in a community. Some didn’t. Some looked more internal when it comes to COVID CARES money. Some, with the ARP, will do the same. I think the opportunities are out there and extensive to explore when it comes to the ability to use those dollars for both external, outward-looking initiatives; but also internal initiatives.”
The next meeting of the Board of Commissioners is at 9 a.m. Tuesday, June 22, in the Board Room at the Morrison County Government Center.