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Bulk of courthouse routers never used

Lawrence Pierce
The St. Albans branch of the state's Office of Environmental Health received one of the Tax Department's former courthouse routers last month.
Chris Dorst Three years ago, the state Tax Department purchased 55 Internet routers for county courthouses in West Virginia, but was forced to stop the project and send the routers to the state's surplus property warehouse in Dunbar.
Lingbing Hang State workers recently retrieved this router from the Morgan County Courthouse, with plans to send it to the surplus property division. The state is installing new routers -- paid for by the federal economic stimulus -- in county courthouses.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- When two technicians from Morgantown showed up at the Morgan County Courthouse with a new Internet router in late May, Dave McDonald was taken by surprise, but he wasn't about to look a gift horse in the mouth.

Two years earlier, the West Virginia Tax Department installed a router at the courthouse in Berkeley Springs. Now, with little explanation, the state was removing that router and putting in a new one. The device cost $22,600.

"That's almost what I make in a year," said McDonald, information technology director and webmaster for the Morgan County Commission. "That's ridiculous."

And what of the former router?

"They put it in the trunk of the car and drove away," McDonald recalled.

In 2008, the state Tax Department spent $258,000 for 55 Internet routers -- one for each county courthouse in West Virginia.

But only a dozen of those routers -- purchased for $4,680 each -- wound up at courthouses, after state officials abruptly ordered the Tax Department to stop installing the devices.

The other 43 routers -- initially designated for courthouses -- were "retired" as surplus property. And the bulk of those now remain boxed-up in storage in a basement at the state Capitol complex.

In their place, the state is installing larger Internet routers at the courthouses. The routers were purchased in July 2010 with federal economic stimulus funds. The stimulus also will pay to bring fiber-optic cable to each courthouse.

State Homeland Security Chief Jimmy Gianato said last week that the stimulus-funded routers have more capabilities than the Tax Department routers.

"They can't get the bandwidth through [the Tax Department] router," said Gianato, who's overseeing the stimulus spending on the broadband project. "With the new routers and the fiber they can run the bandwidth through those routers and pay one fee and distribute it through the entire facility."

Gianato said Secretary of State Natalie Tennant's office, which collects voters' registration data and piggybacks on the Tax Department's network, requested the new routers for the 55 courthouses -- part of a statewide $126.3 million broadband expansion project paid for by the stimulus.

Tim Leach, a lawyer in Tennant's office, responded that the Tax Department's courthouse routers "met the Secretary of State's technical needs."

"The Secretary of State did not interrupt the installation of the [Tax Department] routers," Leach said.

Unused $4,680 routers resold for $500

For years, the state Supreme Court and Tax Department shared an Internet network that linked county courthouses.

In 2008, the Supreme Court wanted its own network, so the Tax Department set up a separate network -- and purchased 55 routers to funnel data from the courthouses to Charleston.

"The purpose was to upgrade and modernize, so the courthouses could operate efficiently and effectively," said Danny Forinash, spokesman for the Tax Department. "We want to collect property assessment information as accurately as possible."

In September 2008, the Tax Department bought 55 Cisco series 2821 routers from Verizon. The $257,462 sale included a $25,478 charge for a one-year maintenance warranty.

The Tax Department installed a dozen routers in county courthouses across West Virginia.

In July 2010, the state used $24 million in stimulus funds to buy 1,064 Cisco series 3945 routers for public facilities, including courthouses, across West Virginia.

A month later, a state Office of Technology administrator ordered the Tax Department to stop the project and hand over the 43 routers that hadn't yet been installed.

The Tax Department checked state law, which prohibits the transfer of equipment directly from one state agency to another.

"Not sure how to fight this. Any ideas?" former Tax Department administrator Dana Miller wrote in an email to state officials.

Miller didn't get a response, so the Tax Department shipped the 43 routers to the state's surplus property division.

The routers were "retired" and resold to the state Office of Technology for $500 each -- $4,100 less than the state initially paid for them.

By then, the one-year service warranty had expired.

State hopes to distribute unused routers

Since June 2011, the state Office of Technology has distributed 19 of the 55 Cisco routers purchased by the Tax Department for the county courthouses. Five of those routers were shipped out since May, after the Gazette-Mail first inquired about them.

Agencies receiving the Tax Department's former courthouse routers include the state Commission on the Deaf, West Virginia Board of Medicine, West Virginia Geological Survey, Pendleton County Health Department Municipal Pension Board, Aviation Division and Surplus Property Division. The agencies are required buy the routers from the Office of Technology for $500 each.

Earlier this month, the Gazette-Mail asked to photograph the routers. State officials initially balked at the request.

"Due to security reasons, we cannot allow pictures to be taken and published of our wiring and network areas," said Diane Holley-Brown, a spokeswoman for the state technology office. "These are sensitive, secured areas, and to have them photographed could be problematic."

After the Gazette-Mail protested the photo ban, the Office of Technology allowed a newspaper photographer to take a picture of a former Tax Department router at the state Office of Environmental Health's St. Albans branch.

WVNET, the state's Internet services agency, is removing the dozen Tax Department routers already installed at courthouses. Those routers also will be sent to surplus -- and purchased by the state technology office.

The state plans to distribute those routers -- and 24 additional routers that the Tax Department never installed at courthouses -- as "need arises," Holley-Brown said.

"The remaining routers will be used for short- and long-term projects, and be used as replacements for routers that may fail," she said. "The office of Technology also plans to keep three or four routers in inventory for emergencies. It is expected that the remaining routers in our possession will be deployed in the upcoming months."

Last month, two U.S. House Energy and Commerce subcommittee chairmen asked for the inspector general to investigate West Virginia's use of the stimulus funds to purchase more than 1,000 high-end Cisco 3945 series routers -- the model that's replacing the Tax Department routers at the county courthouses.

The request followed a series of reports in the Gazette that raised questions about the equipment's size and cost.

The 3945 series "enterprise-class" routers are designed to serve 500 or more users at places such as corporations, medical centers and universities.

In West Virginia, 70 percent of the pricey routers are being installed at schools and libraries. Some locations have only a handful of Internet connections.

Reach Eric Eyre at ericeyre@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4869.


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