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Brown County pays $400,000 to technology company [American News, Aberdeen, S.D.]
[October 27, 2014]

Brown County pays $400,000 to technology company [American News, Aberdeen, S.D.]

(Aberdeen American News (SD) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Oct. 27--In the past three years, Brown County has paid an Aberdeen company nearly $400,000 to provide information technology services and upgrade the county's computer systems.

The total, combined with the findings of a state audit that revealed Sivertsen Technology double-billed the county for a computer, has garnered public discussion about the partnership between the two parties.

Duane Sutton, chairman of the Brown County Commission, has called the double-billing an honest mistake. An investigation by the sheriff's office resulted in the same conclusion.

The investment in technology, though, has been a hefty one, with Sivertsen Technology CEO Paul Sivertsen consistently logging long weeks, county records show.

According to invoices from the Brown County Auditor's Office, Sivertsen Technology has recorded 2,273.5 hours from the start of the year through last Tuesday. For comparison, a full year of 40-hour work weeks adds up to 2,080 hours.

Sivertsen's business is paid $50 an hour under a contract with the county. So far this year, Sivertsen Technology has billed the county for $113,675. At that rate and those hours, Sivertsen Technology is on track to make about $130,000 this year.

For the two-week pay period ending Oct. 7, for instance, Sivertsen billed the county for 128.5 hours worked with a technician listed as "Paul" logging hours on 12 separate days and working shifts of 13 hours twice, 12.5 hours, 12 hours, 11.5 hours, 11 hours, 10.5 hours three times and 10 hours.

On Sept. 27, a Saturday, the technician "Paul" is listed as working 11 hours on what is described only as "so project." Other duties listed under the scope of work header on the invoice includes old tax systems, help desk, marshal swift, cc system, website updates and various meetings.

Starting in 2013, Sivertsen was asked to start itemizing for hours logged to the county. Prior to last year, there were no descriptions on county invoices outlining what work was done. Beginning in 2013, a technician's first name (Paul) was included with dates and hours worked on invoices.

In 2013, the company earned $135,975. In 2012, the total was $129,475.

The state audit revealed that in 2012, Sivertsen Technology sold two Lenovo desktop computers and accessories to the Brown County Landfill for $908. They were to be used for monitoring landfill trash drop sites, but it was later determined that they were not adequate for the county's needs. From there, the audit lays out a series of events that followed: -- Sivertsen Technology replaced the two Lenovos with two Dells from its inventory.

-- The Dells were determined to have been salvaged from the Brown County Landfill and restored.

-- When asked to provide evidence that it had purchased the two Dell computers, Sivertsen Technology provided a canceled check from the company to a third party for $650 that said, on the memo line, "2 used Dell." -- The third party was questioned and said he had never sold Dells to Sivertsen Technology, but that he had sold the contractor Mac Books.

-- The third party then provided a copy of a check that read "Mac Book Pro 17" on the memo line.

As a result, the state audit's concluded that Sivertsen Technology double-billed the county for one of the computers.

That led one legislative candidate to, at a commission meeting earlier this fall, question commissioners about what happened. Another local resident placed an advertisement about the series of events in the American News.

After the Sept. 30 commission meeting, Sutton said the double-billing was an error, not an attempt to deceive the county.

Sutton said that the incident was essentially the fault of the commission as it failed to oversee the correct county equipment surplus protocol, which led to the problem. Sutton, who called questions about the county's partnership with Sivertsen "a dead issue," added that commissioners discussed the matter in executive session and agreed that the proper steps were taken. He declined to discuss what was said during the closed sessions.

Sutton said he has "no concerns at all" about the partnership or the work that the company has done for the county.

In its official response to the findings of the audit, the commission stated that it viewed the "incident as a serious deviation" from its "ongoing commitment to ensuring taxpayer dollars are spent wisely and tracked appropriately." As part of a move to put additional safeguards in place, the commission agreed to stop purchasing products or equipment from Sivertsen Technology and to require each county department to include the serial numbers of pieces of equipment purchased on each invoice.

On the clock John McQuillen, who heads the Brown County Communications Center, said that, at times, more than one Sivertsen technician has worked on county projects under the contract. But, he said, the lone technician going back to the beginning of 2013 has been Sivertsen.

When asked, Sivertsen declined to disclose how many employees work at the company, though he did say that it has "a number of clients and contracts throughout the U.S." Citing client trust, he declined to comment further on his company's work with Brown County.

Sivertsen operates primarily from office space in the courthouse annex basement. Sutton said the company does not pay rent.

So far this year, Sivertsen has billed the county for an average of 52.3 hours per week. While pointing out that it was ultimately the decision of the county commission to contract with an outside IT services provider, McQuillen said upgrades to the county's systems were sorely needed at the time Sivertsen came aboard.

"We've made significant improvements and they were needed," McQuillen said. "The county's infrastructure wasn't up to date, and we've been fortunate to have a contractor like Sivertsen Technology work for us to improve those systems." Folks might not think about all the different systems that can fall under that umbrella, including all computers, phone systems, servers, security mechanisms and wireless capabilities, McQuillen said.

"If you put all that together, it's a behemoth of a project and it's ongoing," McQuillen said. "We're talking about some significantly large projects, like getting the fairgrounds and the new building out there wired for the network. That's just the day-to-day world in the IT business. We've seen some big improvements, and this continues to be a living, breathing project." Under the county's original contract with Sivertsen, signed in 2011, the county agreed to pay the company's technician $75 per hour, though a cap of $97,500 was placed on yearly payouts for services. Despite the stipulation, county records show that Brown County paid $112,237 for nearly 1,500 billed hours that year.

The following year, the contract was amended to pay the technician $50 per hour, but the language for the cap was taken out, a change that suited the county better, Sutton said.

Also during the Sept. 30 commission meeting, commissioners decided to move ahead with the hiring of a chief information technology officer, which commissioners said would potentially end the county's contract with Sivertsen Technology. There's nothing to prevent Sivertsen from applying for the new post.

During last week's meeting, commission assistant Gary Vetter reported that 15 applications had been received for the position, which has a salary range of $70,000 to $130,000. Five of the applications are from outside of South Dakota, he said.

"Sivertsen Technology was contracted the last few years to move our courthouse into updated technology usage in our system," said Brown County Commissioner Nancy Hansen. "We are now ready to move into the CIO position of employment with someone." Information technology professional Chris Stucke, who worked in that capacity for Brown County for several years until he left his post in 2011, said he doesn't believe it would make sense for the county to employ just one IT person.

"If the county is paying all this money to one guy, that just doesn't make sense," Stucke said. "A well-paid IT person in Brown County would make about $50,000 per year, so, if the county is paying over $100,000 per year for one technician, it could have two people with 10 or 15 years of relevant experience and maybe hire another part-time person." Lincoln County deputy auditor Karla Hill said that annual salaries for the two-person county IT staff are $53,492.88 for the supervisor and $38,256.24 for the assistant.

Canton is seat of Lincoln County, which population of Lincoln County is slightly less than 50,000, according to census numbers. Brown County's population is roughly 38,000.

Were Sivertsen formally a county employee, the $130,000 his company could make this year would dwarf what's paid to other county workers. According to county records, Brown County State's Attorney Larry Lovrien is the county's highest-paid employee, earning a little more than $76,000 per year. Sheriff Mark Milbrandt is next in line, earning nearly $68,000 per year. Milbrandt collects an additional $500 per week to oversee the county's communications center.

Despite the large number of hours billed to the county the past few years, McQuillen said that the county has received a relatively good deal with regard to its partnership with Sivertsen Technology.

"Looking at the fact that (Brown County) hasn't had an IT person in the role that it's hiring for now, it probably saved money to this point contracting with Sivertsen," McQuillen said. "There isn't really anything on paper anymore, the entire world is on the keyboard. I'm not sure the average person at their desktop understands what goes into running these systems." Assistant managing editor Scott Waltman contributed to this report.

Totals paid by Brown County to Sivertsen Technology for information technology services 2014 through Tuesday: $113,675 2013: $135,975 2012: $129,475 2011: $112,238 ___ (c)2014 the American News (Aberdeen, S.D.) Visit the American News (Aberdeen, S.D.) at Distributed by MCT Information Services

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