Idaho Supreme Court. Photo by Nishant Mohan, Idaho Reports
By Nishant Mohan, Melissa Davlin and Seth Ogilvie, Idaho Reports
The Idaho Supreme Court has delayed implementation of a new court records system in Idaho after hearing concerns from counties across the state.
The delay comes in the wake of revenue shortfalls for the courts and unexpected costs for the two counties, Ada and Twin Falls, which already have the system.
The roll out of Odyssey, which is replacing the discontinued iStars system, was initially scheduled for April for ten counties. That has now been moved to October. Sara Thomas, administrative director for the Idaho Supreme Court, said in an e-mail to county clerks that the state plans to improve business processes and implement enhanced features of the technology that will make roll-out more effective.
“We know all of you have been working hard and were ready to launch in a few months,” Thomas wrote in the e-mail to counties. “However, we feel it is important to intensify our efforts in Twin Falls County and Ada County to address high impact areas and improve the efficiencies of the court case management system prior to bringing on additional counties.”
The money factor
The problems with the Odyssey roll out aren’t new. The Idaho Supreme Court is facing a projected $3.7 million shortfall in revenue for Odyssey implementation. The courts initially hoped civil case filing fees and one-time general fund allocations would pay for the roll-out, which was pitched to the Legislature in 2014.
The initial bill that enabled the creation of Odyssey also increased court filing fees. Patti Tobias, Thomas’ predecessor, wrote in the bill’s statement of purpose and fiscal note that the increase in fees would add an estimated $5.4 million in annual revenue for the state’s Court Technology Fund.
That hasn’t happened. The number of civil filings have dropped both in Idaho and nationwide, according to a presentation by Thomas to the joint budget committee in fall 2016.
In addition, there have been other unexpected costs, especially for IT personnel and administrative staff on the state level. According to the presentation, the Idaho Supreme Court has already redirected $7.4 million to iCourt from other activities in response, and reduced the scope of a video conferencing project to save resources.
There were also unanticipated costs on the county level. Twin Falls County, which received the new software in 2015, is paying $163,430 annually for four employees the clerk’s office hired to handle continuing strains put on their system by Odyssey.
Anticipating the change
The other 42 counties are set to launch over the next two years. Thomas said in the e-mail that counties can still expect to be on the system by the end of 2018.
“(The delay) confirms that there’s issues with the rollout,” said Pam Eckhardt, Bingham County Clerk. Eckhardt’s office is not scheduled to launch with the program until October 2018. Still, the issues affect everyone, she said.
“What it means in the meantime is that the state is operating on two different systems,” Eckhardt said. “Right now, we have limited support for iStars. You’ve got IT people for the state trying to support two systems.”
Karen Volbrecht, lead clerk in Bear Lake County, which is set to roll out with Bingham County, said she would have liked to have the program sooner.
“We would like to be in the same position as the rest of the state,” Volbrecht said. “Though one nice thing is I expect they’ll have a lot of the bugs worked out by then.”
Passing along concerns
As Twin Falls and Ada settled into the new system, the other counties looked to them to see what to expect.
By replacing more than just the record keeping, judges and litigants have access to their documents from anywhere. However, problems with the switch include more than transition costs – the new program is having lasting effects as well.
“The previous system was more structured to serve the clerks,” said Phil McGrane, Ada County Chief Deputy Clerk. “The clerks are the wheels and the cogs and the new system has proven to be very inefficient for them.”
McGrane said it was good for Ada County to be one of the first; As a large county, Ada handles cases of every kind. If it works there, it should work everywhere else.
“Many people are welcoming the change,” McGrane said. “But it’s safe to say it’s been more challenging than we anticipated. Our court system is way more complicated than we ever gave it credit for.”
Thomas, who was hired as the administrative director in 2016, said she recognizes the ISC administration misses issues. Before the delay announcement, Thomas and others at the Supreme Court were working with clerks to address concerns and set up trainings.
“The elected clerks meet twice a year. One of the first things I did when I became the administrative director is I went to one of those meetings,” Thomas said. “And I got an earful.”
Small counties, big problems
Though the two counties are settling into the system, Twin Falls and Ada are still having issues, largely from employees learning new processes.
Their transition stories have spooked county clerks in other areas of the state. Without much other information, those concerns dominate the discussion of the switch.
“The only thing they have to go by is seeing what’s happening in Ada and Twin,” Thomas said.
Kathy Ackerman, Idaho County Clerk and president of the Idaho Association of Clerks and Commissioners, said counties can assign two of their clerks as subject matter expert and onsite coordinator to travel in the months ahead of roll-out to receive training and return to train the rest of the staff.
“When you have a large county, you can take two people away from their desks. Not so in small counties,” Ackerman said. “You can also hire temps. Well guess what? In Grangeville, Idaho, you’re going to have trouble finding a deputy clerk temp.”
Ackerman said much of the system is set up to be job-specific. She said this is fine in large, specialized clerks offices, in which there might be one person whose only job is scheduling arraignments. That person needs to learn only one level of the program.
“I only have four clerks, and they all do everything,” Ackerman said. “That is going to be a problem. My clerks will have to cover all the jobs necessary, and that’s going to require another person at least.”
In contrast, the Ada County Clerks office currently employs about 110 court clerks, McGrane said.
Since Twin Falls went live with Odyssey in 2015, Twin Falls County Clerk Kristina Glascock said she has seen improvements. Glascock created a temporary position in each of her four teams of five to seven clerks to keep on schedule. With those four positions now permanent, the system is now working well.
There are pros and cons to being the first out of the gate, Glascock said. And though the transition was tough at times, it was necessary.
“I would never do it again, just because of how time intensive it is to be the pilot,” Glascock said. “But Idaho is set now. iStars was at the end of its life. The old company didn’t have a lot of the features we needed to add.”