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Government online plan delayed

Hillsborough's proposal to piggyback Tampa's online government venture draws cries for competitive bids.

By BILL VARIAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 8, 2001


TAMPA -- County Administrator Dan Kleman still thinks it's a good idea to join forces with the city of Tampa in creating an online government supermarket.

But he withdrew the plan Wednesday amid concerns raised by some county commissioners and Tax Collector Doug Belden that no competitive bids were sought for the project.

Commissioners unanimously supported his decision. Kleman said he would bring another proposal in the coming weeks.

"It is both product and process that is important," said Kleman, explaining the decision he reached during a lunch-hour break from Wednesday's commission meeting. "I believe there is simply too much concern about this process."

"Hear, hear," said Commissioner Stacey Easterling."

"You know, when in doubt, don't," added Commissioner Jan Platt. "I congratulate the administration. I think they got us out of a mess."

Still, Kleman said he made his decision somewhat reluctantly. And at least two commissioners, Ronda Storms and Thomas Scott, expressed dismay with the new course of action, wondering aloud if some other factor was at play.

Scott said he suspected Kleman withdrew the proposal out of concern for stirring a political hornet's nest while commissioners debate his long-term employment.

The city of Tampa signed a contract in December with a local subsidiary of National Information Consortium Inc. to build an online government portal. The portal would be a sort of one-stop shop where people one day will be able to do anything from pay a parking ticket or secure a building permit online.

Tampa signed a contract with NIC after seeking bids for the project. Last month, county staffers proposed joining with the city to create a larger portal that included all government services in Hillsborough County.

Belden raised concerns about the county's proposal to piggyback Tampa's.

NIC would install and maintain at no cost to the county the computer software to make the portal happen. But it would charge citizens a still-to-be-determined fee to do business there.

The company required a five-year contract, with taxpayers obligated to pay a pro-rated amount up to $6.8-million if the county backed out.

And NIC would collect the money from any transactions through the Internet. The company posted losses of $37-million last year and saw its stock price fall from $78 a share to less than $3. Belden feared the arrangement exposed the county to financial risk if NIC were to go bankrupt.

A similar project for the Tax Collector's Office brought 17 bids, including one from NIC that was rejected by Belden.

Commissioners parroted some of Belden's concerns Wednesday before voting to support Kleman's decision to seek bids.

Mukesh Patel, president of NIC's local subsidiary, Florida Local Interactive Inc., said his company will decide whether to submit a bid for the project based on how the county structures its request. He has said Belden's characterization of his company is unfair.

Still, he said he was only partly disappointed with the vote Wednesday.

"We'd rather it be done in a way that everyone is happy with it," he said.

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