County needs to think differently about IT department

BARTHOLOMEW County keeps finding itself in scramble mode after an exodus of information technology specialists. The last employee of what was once a five-member IT department submitted his resignation on Tuesday, with his final day of work Friday.

Eight county IT specialists have resigned over the past 14 months, including three department directors. The most recent director resigned after just three days on the job.

The inability to keep staff members is a concern because of the vital county services they support, such as the courts and clerk’s office. Earlier this summer, the county experienced a computer glitch that prevented city and county law enforcement officers from obtaining data on laptop computers in their vehicles, which presented a safety risk.

While county officials cited a lack of leadership since the departure of longtime IT director Jim Hartsook 14 months ago, the main issue appears to be salaries that have not been competitive with private-sector opportunities. The county council said it planned to increase pay for the county’s IT director, but it must be prepared to pay competitive wages for all of the positions in the department. Otherwise, the county will continue to serve as a training ground for IT professionals until a more lucrative opportunity arises.

While the county commissioners are in charge of managing the county workforce, the county council is in charge of the purse strings. Both must work together to ensure the county has quality employees to support critical department functions and provide the services residents need.

The county took steps to begin addressing the problem Monday by hiring Sharp Business Systems to perform certain IT services as a stop-gap measure over the next two months.

The county has agreed to pay Sharp $9,800 to cover 144 hours of “help desk” services if county employees need to call for computer help. An additional $2,500 will be paid to cover 20-hours of on-call work to be performed. Those amounts are projected to cover the county’s IT needs for a two-month period, commissioner Larry Kleinhenz said. The county is also hoping to secure IT support from a second private contractor.

If these relationships were to continue for a full year, “we’re paying about $120,000 a year for a technician,” commissioner Carl Lienhoop said.

In contrast, the county’s most recent IT specialists to leave have been making between $42,000 and $55,000 annually.

Permanent, long-term solutions are needed, and that will require thinking differently about the IT department.

The most obvious change is to make pay for the positions in the department more competitive with the private sector, considering the work the specialists do supports important services. For county council members who have had to deal with budget problems in recent years and have been reluctant to seek a new tax revenue stream, paying competitive wages for talent must be a discussion point for upcoming conversations.

The county’s IT problem — certainly a pay issue — is symptomatic of a larger revenue challenge that Bartholomew County government has been facing and will continue to face. As final budget deadlines approach for 2017, county government must pursue new revenue options so all of its departments are property funded to provide critical services on behalf of all of its stakeholders.