Miami Beach

July 9, 2014

New Miami Beach iPhone app costs more to taxpayers, but officials say it’s worth it

Miami Beach’s new mobile app cost more upfront, but it will pay off with greater customization and new features, city officials said.

The cost of Miami Beach’s latest mobile app may raise eyebrows, but city leaders say the service is worth the one-time $123,000 price tag.

Though a previous app cost only $6,500 per year, the “City of Miami Beach e-Gov” product was custom-designed for the city, includes new features and eliminates reoccurring costs associated with the old one. A similar app in North Miami Beach costs that city $7,000 annually.

Miami Beach’s recently released iPhone and Android application lets residents report problems, just like the old one. But the e-Gov app also lets users send voice notes to the mayor and track the Alton Road trolley in real time.

It’s not fair to compare only the price tags, said Assistant City Manager Mark Taxis.

“It’s not an apples-to-apples to comparison,” Taxis said. “Not only do we have a system that we designed, we don’t have recurring payments every year ... We don’t have to rely on a company and then wait for them to do it. We don’t have to wait and see. We have the latitude that we felt was important.”

By building an app from scratch, the city was able to pick and choose which services to include, whereas the previous “Report It Miami Beach” was an off-the-shelf product. The city will also be able to update and modify the app in-house.

“The best thing is we own it, so I don’t have to depend on someone else when there’s an issue,” said Barbara Hawayek, the city staffer who handles complaints received through the app. “I need a quick response.”

Other improvements include better tracking of complaints on the city’s end. Residents now also get a notification when their issue has been resolved.

City IT Director Ariel Sosa said his staff could have developed the new product in-house, but Mayor Philip Levine wanted it done faster than the staff could produce it. So the city used an existing federal contract for IT services in a process commonly called “piggybacking.”

When a city piggybacks on an existing contract, no comparison shopping is required. Rather, the city takes advantage of prices negotiated by another government agency. In this case, Miami Beach went with the prices negotiated in a federal contract with Minnesota-based EMA Inc.

Taxis was an assistant city manager in Doral when that city hired EMA to help build its mobile application. Rafael Alpizar, who was Doral’s IT director at the time, oversaw that project.

Alpizar now works for EMA and managed the development of Miami Beach’s app.

Taxis said he didn’t choose EMA because of his past connections, but because he wanted some of the same features he was used to in Doral.

He also pointed to EMA’s track record working with government clients. The company does business with dozens of municipalities all over the United States and in Canada, according to an email to Taxis from Executive Vice President Craig Yokopenic.

Doral’s Assistant IT Director, Ana Zecchini, worked as a subcontractor for EMA and helped develop the Miami Beach app, Yokopenic said. Sosa, the head of Miami Beach’s IT department, said he was impressed with her work and offered her a position that became open in Miami Beach because the city is restructuring the department.

The position was not posted because non-union job openings don’t need to be advertised, city officials said. Starting July 14, Zecchini will be an application systems manager for Miami Beach, making $95,000.

“The opportunity was there, and the candidate was there, and the stars aligned,” Sosa said.

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