Mobile County License Commissioner Nick Matranga is looking to part ways with a longstanding IT contractor, who also happens to have been the key witnesses in his predecessor Kim Hastie’s public corruption trial in June.
APL Software, a company that has performed millions of dollars worth of work with Mobile County over multiple decades, typically only compensates a single employee — its owner and incorporator Victor Crawford. During stints working for the Mobile County Commission and the License Commission, Crawford has maintained lucrative public contracts since the 1980s.
Crawford was also the key witness for federal prosecutors in a failed conspiracy case against Hastie this summer that ultimately saw the current Mobile County Revenue Commissioner acquitted of all but one criminal charge.
Two full days of cross-examination during the trial revealed that Crawford has a documented history of overbilling the county for his work. Just this past month, APL Software submitted invoices totaling $47,000, and Matranga says that’s an average bill.
“In my tenure as Mobile County License Commissioner, we have experienced a number of significant failures (that) were costly and unplanned budget expenditures,” Matranga told county commissioners during a work session today. “These failures caused excess clerical time and aggravation among the staff and customers. For these reasons, I became dissatisfied and began searching for an answer to the problem.”
Matranga believes he’s found that answer in Ingenuity Inc., a Pellham-based company that performs similar computer operations for seven other counties in Alabama. According to Matranga, Ingenuity — owned and operated by Pellham City Council President Rick Hayes — could take over Crawford’s operation immediately. He said the transition would reduce and streamline varying charges down to a flat monthly fee of $11,000 after a one-time upfront cost of $180,000. Altogether, the move is projected to save the county $695,000 over its first three years.
However, Mobile County Commission President Jerry Carl questioned those purported savings telling Matranga, “you haven’t shown me any numbers. All you’ve done is talk.”
The County Commission, with whom APL Software is technically contracted, is expected to vote on a 30-day notice of termination at its Dec. 14 meeting. Matranga said he would provide Carl with the information he was seeking before then.
Meanwhile, Commissioner Merceria Ludgood questioned the timing of the newly appointed license commissioner’s decision to seek the termination of Crawford’s contract.
“Carol Norris, who was Mrs. Hastie’s predecessor, is one of the tightest people you’ll find with money, but she was happy with APL. Her successor was happy with APL. We got the ‘10-minute tags’ with APL,” Ludgood said, citing Hastie’s campaign pledge. “So, all of that history, but 10 weeks is enough for you to be able to ignore all that history and decide that you know better?”Matranga, who was present throughout each day of Hastie’s almost two weeks in court, said he’d been “studying (the issue) for quite a long time. Ludgood questioned why Matranga, who replaced Hastie in September, would have been looking into the issues prior to his appointment.
“Everybody that’s a taxpayer in this town is familiar with what APL was doing,” Matranga said. “It’s working. It’s getting us there, but it’s costing us a lot of money to get there. In the interest of the taxpayers, I think it’s important that we revisit this. Ingenuity has the ability. They can come on immediately and provide a cheaper, faster and better system.”
Regardless, Matranga said his biggest concern has always been having Crawford as the “single programmer” responsible for many integrated IT systems including the computer systems related to license registration, driver’s licenses, ad valorem tax collection and funding distributions.
Consequently, reports issued by the Alabama’s Department of Examiners of Public Accounts in the late ’90s noted the same deficiency. Lagniappe was able to obtain copies of those reports, which among other findings, said there was “no documentation for any of the new program applications.”
They went on to say the “internal control environment appears very weak” because “all aspects of computer implementation and design are controlled by one computer programmer and no manuals exist which explain how the computer system or program operates.”
As Matranga put it, if something were to happen to Crawford, “We would totally fall apart. The whole system would be shut down.”
On the County Commission, Connie Hudson appeared to be the only commissioner immediately supporting the termination of Crawford’s contract — with Ludgood questioning the sudden interest and Carl scrutinizing the projected savings.
“I know you have done your due diligence at looking at these contracts and looking at the shortcomings in the License Commissioner’s office regarding this IT issue,” Hudson said to Matranga. “I certainly support saving money, and saving $690,000 is something we absolutely can not ignore.”
Carl however, continued to press Matranga for questions over the IT budget in his office, which this year came in at around $468,000. Overlooking the APL Software contract, Carl asked about two segregated accounts the office has set up in recent years to help fund computer and network upgrades.
The first was established by local legislation in 2013 and tacked on a $1.25 fee on several “instrument(s) registered or application(s) applied for in the office of the license commissioner.”
The second segregated account is derived from a 2.3 percent fee assessed to residents who use “bank cards” during their business at the license commission. Allegedly, it was established to cover the cost of processing electronic payments but has since become profitable for the office.
As of today, Matranga said those accounts have a balance of $1.8 million and $559,000, respectively.
Carl wanted to know how the money would be spent, and why the license commission was “knowingly overcharging taxpayers” who make payments electronically. He said there had recently been “some real issues” with those accounts — an allusion to Hastie’s use of the account to hire a lobbyist to write legislation related to the proposed merger of the license and revenue commissions.
Matranga said the accounts were being managed and spent properly, and added that the details of the accounts had been fully disclosed to members of the County Commission.
“State has authorized us to charge for a credit card account, and we have done that. The county has asked for that and we’ve turned over all those accounts to the county,” Matranga responded. “I’m not to go outside the boundaries of the commission and what we’re authorized to do. If we can get these upgrades to the system taken care of and then lower it down, we’ll do that.”
Updated at 6:26 p.m. to correct typographical errors
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