The great state payroll snafu

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By The Staff


Syndicated Columnist

SANTA FE -- Hasty implementation of a great idea early in Gov. Bill Richardson's administration has haunted state government ever since.

When Richardson took office state government had 70 disparate payroll and human resources systems. It made sense to combine those into one overall system. Many other states were in the process of doing the same thing. Software programs had been developed that would handle such a task.

Fitting 70 different systems into one new statewide system wasn't going to be easy. New Mexico could have contracted to have such a system designed and installed but it was cheaper to buy it off-the-shelf and then hire another company to help you do it yourself.

Such conversions were taking other states in the neighborhood of 28 months to get everything up and running smoothly. That included some time to run both systems in parallel for awhile to be sure they gave the same results and time to convert a few departments ahead of the others just to see how things worked.

But someone in New Mexico state government wanted to do the conversion in half the time and half the cost. That pressure usually is blamed on the Department of Finance and Administration, which was responsible for the new system.

No fingers were pointed at our new, popular, let's-go-get-'em governor but it is unlikely anyone thought the orders were coming from anyone other than "fast-forward" Bill.

The changeover also needed to include outside experts in every agency to train personnel and to handle any early implementation problems. But New Mexico chose a train-the-trainers approach, in which someone from every department was given training and then told to go back and teach coworkers.

Some agencies had information technology employees who have experience with similar systems outside New Mexico. They did all right but the rest needed more help than they were receiving.

So the new system, called SHARE, debuted three years ago this July. It was largely a disaster. Thousands of state employees, vendors and contractors received no payments, late payments or incorrect payments. Some vendors said they were forced out of business because of having to carry the state for so long.

Those problems were solved first. After six or eight months, the dust settled a little but the Legislative Finance Committee decided to take a much closer look because if the system had so much trouble with the little stuff, what about big things, such as audits and handling federal money?

And sure enough, agencies have had problems, the worst being the state Department of Transportation which was notified that its federal reimbursements had been suspended because the SHARE accounting system was inadequate to handle its reporting in the form that the feds require.

Since a good 40 percent of state highway money comes from the federal government, that action caught everyone's attention. Sen. Phil Griego, a member of the Legislative Finance Committee asked for an investigation of SHARE and who is responsible for its failures.

As we said earlier, the LFC has been looking into SHARE for two years. So it may take more than that. From here, it appears what it is going to take is money to do the job the way it should have been done originally.

We had plenty of money back then to do the job right. Unfortunately Gov. Richardson had many other big ticket items he also wanted to sell at the time.

Many other states use the basic Peoplesoft system we bought off the shelf. It is a respected company and a good product. What we need is a lot more brainpower spending a lot of time to design the system to meet federal needs.

Rep. Janice Arnold-Jones, an expert in the field estimates it will take 90 days, at 18 hours a day, with a really good team to do the fix.

There may be little choice but to do that.