Audit: Tarrant Appraisal District Stuck With Bad Software

By Yamil Berard

After two controversial years and an investment of over $1 million, the Tarrant Appraisal District is stuck with a software system that still isn’t working properly, according to a new audit.

An independent verification audit has found that more than one-third of the functions it was tasked to perform are “unfulfilled,” meaning they haven’t been resolved or don’t work properly.

Also, the timeline for implementation of the new software was compressed, creating wide gaps in testing and quality control that later led to an assortment of issues, including missing and inaccurate appraisals, errors on tax exemptions, homeowner addresses and names.

Even a request for proposal soliciting software companies to vie for the work was incomplete or lacked key details, such as statutory requirements associated with government appraisal systems.

“To me and the people in the county, it just brings back all the frustration and the anger that we’ve had to experience over the last two years, starting with the [October 2014] go-live, which was an utter disaster, an unmitigated disaster,’’ said Ron Wright, the county’s tax assessor-collector, who sits on the appraisal district’s board of directors. “It was literally months before we got data that we could use that was of any use at all. Based on what we’ve learned here, that certainly explains a lot.”

Weaver Tidwell, a Fort Worth company, was hired by the appraisal district’s board of directors to complete the “independent verification and validation” audit of its new software. The company’s charge was to try to “broadly” certify whether the system was operating as intended.

The audit was delivered to the appraisal district’s board of directors during a public meeting, Dec. 16.

“This is explosive,’’ Wright said. “It needed to come out, in contrast to the shiny lollipops the board heard from time to time when they needed to know what was going on.”

Joe Potthoff, chairman of the board of directors for the appraisal district, also affirmed the audit’s findings.

“It accurately reflects a lot of what was the root causes of some of the difficulties that we have…we can’t change what’s already happening, but what we can do is figure out exactly the best way to go forward,’’ Potthoff said.

He expressed a desire to pinpoint recommendations to fix problems. He also suggested that an outside firm could be hired to do that.

“What I don’t want to happen is that we get into a situation where we’re fixing it, and, as it occurred earlier, we fixed one thing but caused other things to break down in the process,’’ Potthoff said. “We need a comprehensive, full approach to this.”

Talk of a software conversion occurred as early as 2011. That year, the appraisal district initially hired a company known as Manatron to replace its legacy software holding more than 1.6 million property appraisal records. One year later, Thomson Reuters purchased Manatron.

Because of some delays and changes in software, the original implementation deadline was postponed by one year, said Brian J. Thomas, a partner of information advisory services at Weaver Tidwell.

The appraisal district went live with its new software in October 2014. Almost immediately, failures began, including a two-month shutdown at the appraisal district’s offices.

That set off the chief financial officers of a number of taxing entities in Tarrant County, who claimed they were shorted millions in revenues due to property assessments that were not included on the tax rolls because of the appraisal district’s software failures.

Estimates by the Texas state comptroller’s office, which conducts an annual property value study of every county in the state to assess the accuracy of numbers provided by appraisal districts, showed that Tarrant was short by tens of millions in assessed property in 2015.

On Dec. 16, there was also criticism by Wright and others that the company, Thomson Reuters, had not provided sufficient access to auditors during its evaluation.

After the meeting, Paul Thies, a company spokesman, said the company was reviewing the audit.

In an email, Thies emphasized that Thomson Reuters had “met all reasonable requests” to comply with auditors. Company representatives met with the auditor on two separate occasions to provide briefings on the software and implementation, he wrote.

Also, the company provided hundreds of pages of documents detailing system conversion plans, requirements, testing and change requests.

Tarrant Appraisal District’s Chief Appraiser Jeff Law, a supporter of the software, did not comment publicly during the meeting. 

Yamil Berard is a Fort Worth freelancer.