AUSTIN (KXAN) — Workers inside the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission were coming up on a deadline back in August. For two years, the agency worked to build a new web portal for bar and restaurant owners to apply for alcohol permits.

It was set to be a big step-up from a system that required owners to apply and renew their licenses in person.

“For years, I would make a trip up to headquarters for a renewal and I would take two copies, stamped,” said Bob Woody, who owns more than 20 establishments in Austin. “I would post it here, give it to all the managers, everybody and we’d be safe.”

In 2019, the Texas legislature allocated nearly $10 million to TABC to update – what it called – an ‘outdated’ system. (The agency had to return $1.3 million halfway through development because of budget cuts, according to the TABC Chief Financial Officer.) But the money came with a deadline.

TABC had to update its rules, application forms – and go live with the new website by Sept. 1, 2021. Two years after taking on the project, the rollout of the new system, called AIMS, has been anything but smooth.

“Some have been forced to open without permits”

Nearly two months after its release – licensing consultants, business attorneys, and commissioners who’d been fielding calls about the problematic rollout of AIMS sounded off during an October commission meeting about the myriad of errors with the system.

One Dallas-based attorney, who helps businesses apply for alcohol-related permits, said virtually every encounter with the new AIM System has been a “technological issue or a communication issue.”

“Since that launch, some [clients] have been forced to open without permits and unable to get their AIMS applications processed,” said David Denney, who was invited by the commission to share his experience back in October. Denney added TABC’s licensing department has worked diligently to create workarounds for his clients.

His colleague told commissioners the instructions for AIMS, in general, were unclear, mid-way through filling out applications the portal forced them out, and emails asking for guidance didn’t see a response for up to a week in some cases.

“Not only do we, have we experienced issues, but we know with almost certainty that mom and pops that try to do this on their own almost certainly will run into them,” said The Denney Law Group attorney Chelsea Masters to the commission on Oct. 28.

Austin-based attorney Kyle Hill told the commission it had been a ‘rocky’ road since AIMS launched.

“The truth for us is we have had dozens of permits issues since Sept. 1. The truth for us is that’s because we have figured out end around to get things filed in the system,” said Hill.

TABC Chairman Kevin Lilly, Commissioner Jason Boatright, and Commissioner Hasan Mack also expressed concerns after hearing from business owners – and licensing attorneys since the rollout.

“There’s the suggestion that the issues are small and a drive to minimize the problems,” said TABC commissioner Jason Boatright in an Oct. 28 meeting. “The people who have reached out to me say ‘look, the thing doesn’t work. It just doesn’t.’”

TABC spokesperson Chris Porter says since September, TABC has responded to more than 9200 requests for assistance from businesses throughout the state. Though, Porter clarifies not all fit the definition of a complaint. As of November, the agency identified 64 issues with the system. TABC says it is still working to fix 17 of those issues.

‘We ran out of time’

Back in 2019, TABC hired Texas-based web developer Sistema Technologies to build the new licensing portal. The company boasts on its website that it developed a website for at least one other Texas government agency.

According to TABC, Sistema Technologies will not be fined or penalized for the defects in the AIMS system. Though, the company is required contractually to take on the costs of fixing those defects. TABC will pay for updates to the websites, according to Porter. Already, the agency has spent more than $67,000 on updates to the system. Porter says the agency anticipated the need for updates and budgeted for a minimum of $64,800 to do so.

“Defects and issues after launch are an expected part of a transformational technology launch such as this,” said Porter. “The vendor has also gone above and beyond to make changes, at one point, deploying major updates to AIMS twice a week for approximately five weeks.”

In October, TABC Chief Information Officer Rheda Moseley told commissioners the agency was only able to beta-test the website with industry leaders for 8 days before it went live statewide. At the time, TABC was still working to migrate data into the new system.

“The money runs out August 31st at the end of the biennium. We had to have everything finished and ready to roll out. We did not have that time,” said Moseley. “If I had 60 days or even 30 days that I could have taken with industry, I would have jumped on it.”

Porter said the money the state legislature allocated to the agency for its technology transition had to be spent by the proper deadline – and that the agency ran the risk of delaying the process further.

Porter says the agency has extended renewals, waived late fees, and has been accepting paper applications from businesses experiencing an issue with AIMS.

“Businesses rely on TABC to be able to get their permits active and be able to go into business and any impediment to that – whether it’s a statutory impediment or something like AIMS where they are not used to the system or the system is not functioning properly – we take that extremely seriously,” said Porter. “We understand it is going to be a question of livelihood for this business owner.”

Porter said 60 percent of eligible businesses have successfully registered their licenses and permits using AIMS. According to TABC, during the month of October alone, nearly 3,000 business entities registered their permits.

“I think the number of people getting into business in Texas has not been tremendously affected by the launch of AIMS and people are still able to do what they do, in slightly different forms, and in some cases, we do have to resort to those older methods of getting people into the business,” said Porter. “What we do believe though once people are up and running it in – it will be easier to use overall.”

Outside the Blind Pig on Austin’s 6th St, Woody says the web portal has worked for his businesses. He chalks the errors with the site to necessary growing pains for the state.

“Everything is hard in the beginning,” said Woody. “I’m in favor of it. I think it’s a good thing. I think through time we will get more positive out of it.”

Worker delivers alcohol to Woody’s bar, the Blind Pig, on Austin’s 6th St. (KXAN Photo/Richie Bowes)