Computer Upgrades Cut County’s Cumbersome Paperwork
Established in 1791 with a handful of citizens, Buncombe County, NC, now comprises 206,000 residents in the western part of the state. Today, the county has about 1,700 employees in 30 departments.
With a $200 million annual operating budget, Buncombe County’s mission is to provide an effective and efficient government its citizens can trust, while maintaining a responsive workforce and viable economy. The county also aims to be progressive in how it uses technology to achieve operational efficiencies and maintain strong fiscal discipline while improving county services to meet current and future needs.
Like most government jurisdictions, Buncombe County faces the ongoing challenge of providing high-quality services at minimal cost. First, it must meet the demands of an increasingly sophisticated citizenry that wants to interact with government electronically and expects easy access to information. Second, county workers also require better access to information via computing systems that support data sharing and interoperability across multiple departments. Finally, lean operating budgets make securing funds for new IT projects a constant battle. The limited resources also require close supervision and strong fiscal management to maximize efficiency, accountability, and cost-effectiveness.
In 2000, Buncombe County relied on an aging DOS-based financial system that consisted of multiple, disparate databases.
“It was very user unfriendly,” says Sonia Burgin, Buncombe County accounting manager. “It took forever to get monthly reports–15 days to close the books, print them, and another four to five days to send them via interoffice mail–so the data was very old before managers ever saw it.”
The county’s legacy system was not easily accessible to employees outside the finance department due to the complexity of its codes. Only 20 users were able to work with the customized system. The county struggled to keep the system updated with current technology.
The lack of integration between applications and disparate databases resulted in highly manual processes and administrative inefficiencies, including an unending payroll cycle, numerous paycheck errors, insufficient reports, and a cumbersome requisition-to-payment process. County managers wanted an administra- tive system that would eliminate such inefficiencies across departments, increase financial visibility, and provide access to real-time data to support critical budget decisions.
“We also wanted a system that would take us into the future with a clear path for modern technology upgrades, which wasn’t possible with what we had,” Burgin says.
After a competitive bid process and vendor evaluation, Buncome County chose to implement an integrated Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system from St. Paul, MN-based Lawson Software in January 2001. The county consolidated financial, procurement, and human resources (HR) operations for all 30 departments into a single platform.
Buncombe County Finance Director Donna Clark says the software was chosen for its cost-effectiveness, functionality, and flexibility.
“Lawson provided all the things we were looking for,” Clark says. “Our IT and finance staff also felt the products could meet our needs for many years into the future and grow with us.”
Buncombe County went live on the HR program in October 2001 and on the financials suite in March 2002– both on time and on budget. In addition to its internal project team, Buncombe County had one full-time project manager and four full-time consultants onsite for several months to provide training and support during the implementation.
“We had a lot of learning-curve issues with several county employees starting the process, then leaving, and someone new coming in to finish it,” Burgin says. “We weren’t communicating between financial and procurement implementation teams as well as we could have been either. Lawson was great at stepping in and helping us fix that.”
Choosing to implement the financial suite in the middle of its fiscal year complicated Buncombe County’s annual auditing process. The county also faced complex data synchronization issues while running its legacy and new systems simultaneously before decommissioning the legacy systems altogether.
Upgrades Leave a Legacy– in the Dust
Since deploying the new applications, Buncombe County has effectively addressed its key business challenges and realized a significant return on its investment in terms of both time and cost savings. System consolidation and automation have streamlined many of the county’s core business processes. Time records, data uploads, payroll, requisitioning, and other formerly manual processes went online while departments eliminated dual recordkeeping tasks. The county also improved its ability to meet state and federal reporting requirements with an activity accounting module.
Before implementing the ERP system, Buncombe County’s finance department manually entered large lists of invoices into its legacy financial system each month. Today, finance staff automatically push those lists into the ERP system.
“Entering those lists took days worth of manual entry,” Clark says. “Now, it’s done in a matter of minutes with a simple upload.”
HR staff also battled time-consuming and complex payroll processes.
“We had multiple databases that weren’t in sync, and that left room for errors and a high level of data entry time,” says Buncombe County Systems Analyst Sherry Banks.
Now the organization has a fully automated human resources system that is integrated with other applications, including payroll and general ledger.
“Payroll used to be a full two-week, unending cycle,” Banks says. “With Lawson, each department enters its own time for time cards, and they verify it before payroll even gets involved.”
Banks adds that when the county used to process manual paychecks, the timekeeper would occasionally leave someone off who then would not get paid. With departments now entering their own time, along with direct deposit, there are no more missing or late paychecks. Reducing the number of printed paper checks has saved the county up to $7,000 a year. A new self-service module now enables employees to go online to access and view their personal data, such as paycheck stubs and benefits information.
Streamlined Requisition Cycles Save Time, Costs
Buncombe County has shortened its accounts payable (AP) cycle by one day, which translates into an estimated savings of nearly $42,000 per year. With the legacy systems, the finance department barely finished one accounts payable run before starting another.
“Now they have a day or a day and a half of lead time between check runs, so they can do other tasks rather than manually enter invoices all day, every day,” Burgin explains.
The shorter AP cycle has given staff time to focus on other activities, such as managing cash flow and improving the county’s supplier relationships.
“I’ve saved approximately 35 hours per month on accounts payable data entry, enabling me to focus on more strategic tasks, such as implementing an electronic funds transfer (EFT) program and managing a document imaging project for the accounts payable division of Finance,” says Buncombe County Accounts Payable Accountant II Irene Wolf.
Using an EFT program saves Buncombe County $5,000 to $6,000 annually by automating its vendor payment process.
“We print EFT remittances on plain paper as opposed to check stock, and we’ve saved money on bank service charges, too,” Burgin says. “It’s five times cheaper to create an EFT than a paper check.”
The county does not carry much inventory, but Burgin has noticed significant productivity gains and efficiency improvements with purchases, particularly in the requisition-to-purchase order process.
With paper and interdepartmental mail, it took the accounting department six or seven days to produce a purchase order. Now, because users from any department can enter an electronic requisition themselves via a standard Web browser, purchase orders are processed within a day.
“The streamlined process has allowed us to reassign two employees from the purchasing department to more strategic roles,” Burgin says.
Real Time = Real Value
County managers say the biggest benefit of the integrated system is having access to real-time data and previously unavailable business intelligence for enhanced decision-making.
Finance department employees used to spend a day running monthly reports and sending them, via interdepartmental mail, to directors of all 30 county departments. Those departments now run their own reports from their desktops.
“Every manager and employee can access the system, not just finance managers,” says Burgin. “The ability to drill around and see all the stored information at any level makes it very user-friendly. Plus, it’s Web-based and easy to use.”
The county now has up to 300 users who can run reports or make system inquiries as needed. And, the system’s security environment gives the county a new level of confidence that users can securely access just the information they need. This broad accessibility has freed finance staff to focus on more strategic and fewer production-oriented tasks. In addition, the finance department was able to reduce its workforce from 20 to 19 employees, while still implementing other large projects, such as document imaging.
Another key benefit Buncombe County has realized with the enhanced reporting capabilities is a shorter month-end close cycle. Since 2001, using the enhanced reporting capabilities has assisted the county in reducing the time needed to close its books from 15 to five days. For the first time, department directors have faster access to operational data.
“Department directors now know the position of their departments on a daily basis–information they used to receive 15 days into the next month,” Clark says. “That gives them a tool to help manage their departments more effectively and react to changing conditions.”
In the first year with the new ERP system, finance managers helped cut the time needed to conduct the county’s annual financial audit in half.
“We’re doing it in record time,” Burgin says. “We presented the audit to the board November 16. I’ve worked here 26 years, and that’s the earliest we’ve ever been to the board.”
Because department managers have better and more timely access to data, they can give auditors more accurate figures.
“The old system was so complicated, the auditors couldn’t look for information, so I had to run reports for them,” Burgin says.
Now auditors access the system directly, looking at data and running their own reports–saving the county time and money.
Overall, implementing an (ERP) system has helped Buncombe County to address each of its primary business and technology challenges by:
• Providing electronic interaction with vendors and citizens for information sharing
The county now converts reports, including budgets, into PDF files and posts them on its Web site, www.govinfo.bz/5197-151. The ERP system’s self-service feature gives citizens, vendors, and employees in multiple departments greater access to a range of county information. The system also enables the county to use a fax integrator to send purchase orders to vendors, e-mail direct deposit stubs to employees, and start a project to e-mail electronic funds transfer (EFT) remittance forms to vendors.
• Maximizing efficiency and cost-effectiveness within lean
Through standardization and automation, the ERP system helps the county save time and money across its operations while improving financial transparency for employees, vendors, and citizens.
• Consolidating disparate databases for timely reporting
The county consolidated multiple financial databases into one, which provides department directors with month-end reports 10 days faster.
• Integrating system to promote efficient processes
Buncombe County’s single ERP system significantly reduces manual data entry, eliminates late paychecks, and shortens the county’s payroll and requisition cycles.
“The great thing is everyone can easily access the data and base their planning decision from the same, accurate information,” Clark says. “What’s more, we haven’t had any downtime with this system. [We] had a lot with the old one.”
Buncombe County reinvests a large portion of the time it saves using the ERP system in reviewing its financial processes and identifying ways to improve and automate them. The county also used some of its “found” time to manage a document image project for several departments and implement an automated credit card program that uploads transaction data directly into the ERP system three times per month.
Forging Ahead with Five-Year Focus
While the county has realized many benefits to date–most notably helping to manage an operating budget growth of $30 million in four years without the need to add administrative staff–planned IT upgrades and future implementations promise even more. Now that Buncombe County has maximized its current IT investments, managers are preparing for the future with strategic upgrade planning.
“I’m very pleased with the five-year plan because it moves us in a positive, user-friendly direction for our staff,” says County Manager Wanda Greene. “My objective is for all directors to have information at their fingertips. Unfortunately, they have very little time to learn all they need. This plan helps us think for them and make them much more interested in having and sharing the data.
“We know what’s coming for the next five years and can plan for it appropriately,” Greene says. “This is a first for us. We’ve set the standard for other county leaders by demonstrating we can plan better and make the best use of our limited funds.”
Editor’s Note: For more information about the Lawson Software financial, procurement, and human resource software suites used in Buncombe County, NC, visit www.govinfo.bz/5197-152.
Buncombe County Savings: A Look at the Numbers
Since implementing Financial, Human Resources, and Procurement suites from Lawson Software, Buncombe County has documented several specific benefits. The county has:
• Reduced the time to close its books each month from 15 to five days, saving 720 staff hours and approximately $22,579 in personnel costs per year.
• Shortened the accounts payable cycle by one day, saving nearly $42,000 per year.
• Saved $6,000 to $7,000 per year on the cost of printing paper paychecks. As an added benefit, this eliminated late paychecks.
• Shortened its requisition-to-purchase order cycle from up to seven days to one day, saving 3,900 staff hours and approximately $97,266 in personnel costs per year. This also allowed the county to reassign two purchasing staff to more strategic roles.
• Reduced the time needed to conduct its annual financial audit in half during the first year, saving 360 staff and management hours and approximately $15,813 in personnel costs per year.
• Experienced dramatic growth in its operating budget–from $170 million to $200 million in four years–without needing to hire additional administrative staff.
• Increased the number of system users from 20 to 300. Departmental time entry saves county payroll staff 1,170 hours and approximately $50,000 in personnel costs per year. Departmental entry of cash deposits saves three finance staff members 1,500 hours and approximately $29,850 in annual personnel costs per year.
• Decreased the time required to enter data into the county’s financial system from days to minutes with automated uploads, saving 300 Accounts Payable staff hours and $6,650 in personnel costs per year. It also reduces general ledger time entry by 120 hours, saving $4,300 in personnel costs per year.
• Reduced the number of finance employees from 20 to 19, saving 1,950 staff hours and $38,000 in personnel costs per year.
• Provided 30 department directors with access to real-time operational data for better decision-making. Employees and managers now run their own reports, saving Finance staff 300 hours and approximately $10,782 in personnel costs per year. This self-service access also has increased employee, manager, and supplier satisfaction.