A Hummel Report InvestigationIt has been more than a year since Secretary of State Ralph Mollis announced he was implementing a streamlined, online application system for business start-ups in Rhode Island - at a cost to taxpayers of $250,000. With the finish of that project still at least six months away, Jim Hummel asks the secretary: Why is it taking so long and what are taxpayers getting for their money?
It has been more than a year since Secretary of State Ralph Mollis promised voters he would implement a streamlined - online application system for businesses starting up in Rhode Island. Well, this week, with the finish of that project at least six months away we ask the secretary: Why is it taking so long and what are taxpayers getting for their money?
The official announcement came during a State House press conference where the governor, the Senate president and the Speaker of the House all praised Secretary of State Ralph Mollis for a plan to make starting a business in Rhode Island more business friendly.
A plan for the so-called master application process to be totally online, streamlined and efficient.
Fox: ``Master application. Duh. We got it, that a business shouldn't have to run around looking at how many forms they have to do be permitted. Why can't they all be in one place?
Well, Secretary of State Mollis has done that.''
A beaming Mollis said he had been working on the plan since he took office in early 2007. He thanked the General Assembly for providing the quarter of a million dollars his office asked for, to fund the program.
Mollis: ``My goal is to get the best product, as fast as possible to help Rhode Island businesses, at the smallest price.''
In a wide-ranging interview with Mollis, the Hummel Report found Quick Start, as it's called, is still very much a work-in-progress, with only two of 5 phases finished and an estimated completion date of February 2012.
That's not what Mollis said at the press conference 15 months ago.
Mollis: ``We already have our online forms library up and running - master app will be handled by the end of the year....''
In fact that so-called forms library, , documents a business might need to fill out to be approved by the state, didn't go online until May 5th and while they're available online, a prospective business still can't file many electronically. The Secretary of State's office says in that first two months, though, it's gotten almost 10,000 page views.
Hummel: ``When did you, in your mind, have it a year ago when you held the press conference that you'd want to have this up and running?''
Mollis: ``I'd say sometime around mid-2011.''
Hummel: ``So a year?''
So we decided to take a closer look at who got the Quick Start contract - and how.
Mollis's office awarded a $250,000 no-bid contract to Ri.Gov, whose real name is Rhode Island Interactive, with offices right across the street from the State House. And while it's incorporated in Rhode Island, the company's principals are in Kansas. Locally it's headed up by Rhode Island native Tom Viall.
Ri.Gov may sound familiar because over the last decade it has handled online state government transactions many of us make, such as applying for a driver's license renewal or required licenses issued by the Health Department. The company makes its money, in part, by charging a fee for the application transaction.
Instead of initially putting the word out that he was looking for a company to develop the master application system, Mollis turned to Ri.Gov to put specs together - and a cost estimate - for a job it would ultimately get.
Mollis said he was allowed to do that - with the Department of Administration's belssign - because Ri.Gov already was doing business in the state and had gone through the bidding process for other work.
In its waiver application the office says it contacted other states to compare costs. The application also says the secretary of state maintains that ``no other vendor has the depth and tenor of experience developing similar web-based services on behalf of RI state entities.''
Mollis likened Ri.Gov to almost being part of state government.
Mollis: ``We started out asking for their assistance in designing what we were going to present to the General Assembly - because they were a Rhode Island agency, for lack of a better word, they were a hybrid Rhode Island department - they worked with all of our websites. We said `Hey, this is what we're looking at - can you help us develop a proposal for us to present to the General Assembly because. And that's very, very common, in our industry, in the construction industry , etc.''
Hummel: ``You mean that a vendor's is at the table writing the specs.''
Mollis: ``Very, very common. In the private sector.''
It raises a question, though, that may never be answered: Could another company - potentially a Rhode Island company - have come up a better program sooner? The Hummel Report has learned there was an internal debate in the Secretary of State's Office, some believing the contract should have been opened up to competing companies.
The bill the General Assembly passed a year ago approving the funding for the online master application gave a broad outline of what the soon-to-be-called Quick Start process would include, but there were no specifics, like a timetable. And while the contract is more specific, there are no dates for completion for any of the phases - a contract the Secretary of State's office signed off on.
Hummel: ``They're not deadlines, they're guidelines, are the not?''
Mollis: ``They should be deadlines.''
Hummel: ``They should be, but they're not drop dead, there's nothing written into anything I've seen that says by x and such date you're going to do this or suffer a penalty - or ask for an extension or whatever. It's pretty much at your discretion.''
Mollis: ``Well, no, it's at their discretion, but I'm agreeing with you. It's at their discretion, but there are guidelines, not deadlines. There should be deadlines.''
Simply put, the company says it needs more time and Mollis has said okay.
But even when the process is completed sometime next year, applicants will be notified by email their application is in, but not that it has been approved. And RI.Gov will continue to take its cut from various forms submitted to different agencies.
In our interview Mollis sounded like some of the program remains more concept than reality.
Hummel: ``What I'm hearing a little bit of is some of these things that were a vision, were really not put down in concrete form in terms of specific dates and I realize you don't want to contradict what they're saying across the street, but the vision of what you have and what they have may not line up at this point. Is that a fair assessment?''
Mollis: ``I hope not. But I can tell you that Ri.gov is very clear, that what we expect is for the first time you'll receive confirmation from a state agency - that your application is pending or approved, yes that is what we've envisioned and what I would expect.''
It should be clearer whether that happens sometime next year.
Jim Hummel, for The Hummel Report.