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Costly, major upgrade set for county's accounting, budgeting system

Sonoma County's Board of Supervisors today is set to authorize spending up to $22.4 million over the next four years to replace the county's aging accounting and budgeting system.

The upgrade to new computer software and hardware is one of the county's costliest capital projects in recent years.

But county officials say it is a long-delayed replacement.

Assistant Auditor-Controller Donna Dunk called the system the "backbone" for county government, including more than two dozen departments and agencies, 3,500 employees and an annual budget of $1.2 billion.

The current system is nearly 28 years old, runs on outdated equipment and has an operating program -- FAMIS -- that has little industry support, officials said. It was tagged for replacement in 2000, but other technology upgrades came first. The recession meant additional delay.

The project's re-emergence comes amid a forecast of a slow rebound in government revenues and could signal a willingness by the Board of Supervisors to embrace spending that wasn't possible a few years ago.

But the move comes with risks.

Marin County spent $5 million in legal fees to press its case that taxpayers were ripped off when the county's new computerized accounting system failed to work properly. The county scrapped the system, which had cost taxpayers an estimated $28.6 million by 2009. The county announced a $3.9 million settlement in the case last month.

Sonoma County officials acknowledged the risk but said they structured their contracts in a different way and sought outside legal help to minimize potential pitfalls for the project.

The overall cost is sure to raise some eyebrows. It is more than twice what the county paid for the personnel and payroll system upgrade, completed in 2011. It also comes amid the county's continued struggle to pay for core services, including road upkeep, and battles with employee groups over pay and benefits.

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