“Frustrating, inefficient and slow:” $200K library book sorter still can’t sort books

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WAUKESHA — It's inefficient, slow and keeps breaking down, but the government agency that bought the nearly $200,000 automated book-sorting machine insists taxpayers are getting their money's worth. Even though the book sorter still can't sort books.

After the Waukesha Public Library's old exterior book drop broke down, they invested in a new one with a $190,000 price tag.

When time is short and you have places to be, a drive-up book drop at the library makes a lot of sense.

"I really don't want to take all three kids out of their car seats, drag them into the library to return those books," said Ann Stone, a Waukesha mom who uses the library a lot.

So when the Waukesha Public Library's old book drop stopped working, they invested in a new one that was supposed to be even better.

"Why isn't it working? Get it to work," Stone said.

The new system involves an elaborate maze of conveyor belts that carry books from two drop-off points (inside and outside) to specialized bins.

The system cost nearly $200,000, but the only real change library users can see is how long it now takes to return books.

"It's just frustrating, and inefficient, and slow," Stone said.

"One at a time. You gotta wait," said Lisa Forster, another library user.

Instead of a simple "drop and go" book slot, the automated system accepts one book at a time, every 10 to 15 seconds.

"If it takes 15 seconds per book and you have 20 books, 30 books. Do the math," Stone said. "That's 7 minutes to get through."

But it's what happens on the other side of the curtain that is supposed to make the system worth the money.

Interim library director John Klima invited FOX 6 News behind the scenes to see for ourselves. It's elaborate system of conveyor belts designed to carry library materials up a ramp and into the building; automatically scan the radio-frequency ID tag (RFID) inside each one; then sort the books into per-determined bins.

Klima says that will help reduce wear and tear on staff members' bodies, thereby reducing workers compensation concerns.

"When you've got a lot of bending and moving and things, it can get a little difficult on staff over time," he said.

If only the state-of-the-art system did what it was supposed to do.

John Klima, Waukesha Public Library's Interim Director.

"It was as rough start, I'll admit that," Klima said.

The project was originally slated for completion in the first quarter of 2015, but the firm that won the bid -- Germany-based 'MK Solutions' -- did not get the equipment installed until September of that year. Even then, the new system suffered a series of mechanical and software errors that left it frequently out of service.

"I won't sugar coat it," Klima said. "The exterior return had a number of issues when we put that in. We thought it was going to go in smoother than it did."

Since then, Klima says things have improved.

"I think it works really well," Klima said.

But records and emails obtained by the FOX6 Investigators show that problems have continued to plague the machine month, after month, after month.

"It breaks down a lot," Forster said.

In fact, the very day Klima invited FOX6 to tour the facility last month, the system locked up again.

Still, library officials have publicly praised the system's more recent operation.

"It's working extremely well in my opinion," said Paul Kasprowicz, President of the Waukesha Library Board.

Privately, however, they continue to complain to the vendor about problems so time-consuming they can't do their jobs.

Paul Kasprowicz, Library Board President

"Has it been perfect?" Kasprowicz said. "No."

The Waukesha Library Board hasn't mentioned the book sorting  system in a public meeting for several months, even though the system has yet to do what it was originally intended to do.

"That's what we're working towards, but it's, you know, it's a long process," Kasporwicz said.

Remember, the system is supposed to automatically scan materials and sort them into specific bins, but the library has yet to figure out how to make it work. Instead, the system simply carries materials into the building and drops them all in the same place.  Staff members still have to scan and sort everything by hand.

"It is receiving those books in, and then those are on those bins," Kasporwicz said.

In addition to the $190,000 price tag, the library spent more than $80,000 to tag everything with RFID, another $30,000 for additional roller bins and $14,000 for the Gold Package maintenance contract.

That's more than $314,000 for a system that's still not fully-functioning two-and-a-half years later.

"Is that a good investment for taxpayers?" FOX6 Investigator Bryan Polcyn asked.

After a lengthy pause, Klima answered, "Um, I think so."

"It's not perfect," Kasprowicz repeated, "but I'll tell you it's working as operated."

"If that is all it does is just deposit your stuff without any scanning or what-have-you," Forster said, "it doesn't make anyone's job easier in there and it's making our life way more inconvenient."

"Why can't we go back to, 'Here is a hole in the wall. Dump your 20 books and be on your way,'" Stone said.

They did exactly that inside the library, where an 'alternate' book drop -- or hole in the wall -- now sits immediately to the left of the automated return system. But, outside, the automated machine is the only option.

"There are growing pains with doing such a big technological project," Klima said.

The automated materials handling system has suffered a long series of software errors and mechanical failures since installation in 2015. It still can't scan or sort books.

Klima said they are getting closer to finally getting the system to work. Last year, they were hoping it would be done by early 2017.

Last month, the Library Board President said, "My guess is, mid-July."

"What is your confidence level that this thing is going to be fully-functioning and sorting books automatically this summer?" Polcyn asked.

"Well," Klima replied, "so there's, my confidence is high, but I need to see how it comes in."

In other words, they're still sorting it out.

The project was originally spearheaded by former Waukesha Library Director Grant Lynch, who repeatedly defended the project the board, city council and the media. And in an email to MK Solutions last year, he promised he would "gloss over" the problems they were having in exchange for a price break on the warranty.

Since then, Lynch has moved on to a job in Ohio. In a recent phone call with the FOX6 Investiagtors, he admitted that a simple "drop and go" system might have worked better.

As for the future of the project, Klima still hopes to get the system scanning and sorting soon.

Meanwhile, the $14,000 Gold maintenance package increases to $19,000 next year and $21,000 by the year 2021. At that rate, over the next ten years, Waukesha taxpayers will pay the original $190,000 price tag all over again, just for maintenance.