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Spataro departure could cost county millions

Wednesday, August 22, 2012 by Elizabeth Pagano

Exiting Travis County Auditor Susan Spataro didn’t pull any punches in an appearance Tuesday before the Travis County Commissioners Court, warning Commissioners that complications from her departure might, among other things, end up costing the county $2.5 million in the near future.


Last week, Spataro was not retained by the Travis County district judges that oversee the County Auditor’s office (see In Fact Daily, Aug. 16, 2012). Her departure, after more than two decades on the job, comes in the middle of the county’s transition to a new $26 million financial software system, named the Better Enterprise Financial Information for Travis County (BeFIT) program.


Spataro, who hopes that the project can still be completed according to a rigid schedule, wasn’t sure it would be. If all holds, the system would go live in January.


“If we don’t hit Jan. 1, we are really talking about a three-month delay until next quarter,” Spataro told In Fact Daily. That three-month delay could cost the county an estimated $2.5 million in extra labor costs.


Spataro was honored with a proclamation, speeches from coworkers and a large bouquet of flowers as part of a Tuesday Commissioners Court celebration of her lengthy Travis County career.


Spataro said that while the kind words were appreciated, she wanted to make it clear that she would never have voluntarily walked away in the middle of such a large and complicated project. Adding to the potential delays in the transition to the new software, the project director, Mike Wichern, is on medical leave for the foreseeable future. While Spataro steered clear of divulging his medical condition, she told the commissioners that she didn’t think he would be coming back.


Lee Nelson, a vice president at Labyrinth Solutions Inc., and a consultant on the project, explained that while some loss of labor was expected on any project of this magnitude, in this case the risk was compounded by the loss of leadership, saying that the sudden transition has left people on the project uncertain and unsure of whether they should go elsewhere.


While Nelson assured the court that the dire predictions of missed deadlines and lost of talent were not “prophecy,” he didn’t downplay his concerns either.


“In my experience, this is unprecedented. I’ve been on projects where we’ve lost a project director, and I’ve been on projects where we’ve lost a project sponsor, but I’ve never been on a project where we’ve lost both at the same time,” said Nelson. “So we do have our work cut out for us.”


Pct. 4 Commissioner Margaret Gomez suggested that it might be a tall order to find a replacement who knew the ins and outs of the county, its procedures and its people as well as Spataro.


Spataro, who will work her last day for the county on Aug. 31, told In Fact Daily that an interim head of the financial software project had not yet been established.

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