By this time next year, the 800 people who work for Whatcom County government should have new telephones. The County Council took an initial step to replace the county's 22-year-old phone system by voting unanimously Tuesday, June 17, to set aside $2.2 million for the upgrade.
One of the newest council members was concerned the county might not be getting the best deal.
Rud Browne said his technology background tells him the cost is too high. Browne, who took office in January, founded the refurbished-electronics business Ryzex in Bellingham.
He argued in Tuesday's meeting of the council Finance and Administrative Services Committee that the county's consultant wasn't looking closely enough at cloud-based phone systems.
J.R. Simmons, president of the Kirkland-based consultant COMgroup, made the financial case for an "on-premise" system, in which the computer server is owned and operated by the county. He told the council that cloud-based systems are less expensive only in the short run and make economic sense for systems smaller than what the county needs.
Browne asked for an extension of the deadline for telecommunications companies to submit proposals to the county, although the council took no action on an extension. The deadline is July 1.
"I want to make sure we've got adequate time to attract the best bidders possible, so we get both the best technological solution and the best price," Browne said.
Perry Rice, the county's information technology manager, said Browne had a point.
"There's a lot of advantages to having a cloud-based system," Rice said. "It keeps the infrastructure current because you get these technology refreshes every couple of years, but we have to make sure it scales to the size and complexity of our organization."
The phone system will include 1,170 lines for all employees who have phones at their desks, as well as lines for fax machines, conference rooms, security alarms and other uses.
Instead of pressing for the extension, Browne ultimately asked county staff for information he could pass along to telecommunications companies he knew that were unaware of the county's planned upgrade.
The new system is sorely needed and has been for a long time, said council member and former county executive Pete Kremen. The phones were already obsolete, Kremen said, when he took over as executive in January 1996.
"I want to be able to go forward, have a system that is adaptable to continue to be state-of-the-art for years to come," he said.
Simmons said ongoing upgrades, even on a county-owned system, are easier now that they simply require software changes, not new equipment. Those upgrades are included in the $108,000 in projected annual maintenance costs, he said.
Although the county has more than $2.2 million in a fund to pay for installation of the new phones, the system could cost less. The amount set aside includes a 10 percent add-on for unforeseen costs. Based on early communications, county staff say several bidders will compete for the job.
"Hopefully the solution is well under the budget amount," Simmons said.
The county has been saving money in departments such as finance, IT and human resources, enabling it to afford the new phones without raising taxes, said current Executive Jack Louws.
"I'm pleased with the fiscal restraint our leaders and departments have exhibited in the last few years," he said in a prepared statement. "It's given us the ability to present and maintain a fiscally sustainable budget while making improvements to our efficiency by upgrading our technological infrastructure."