August 16, 2010 By Russell Nichols
A few years back, tax collectors started fanning out across Shelby County, Tenn., to serve citations and seize payments directly from delinquent taxpayers.
But this past February, the Shelby County Trustee's Office expanded that operation, deploying the so-called "mobile cashiers" to various pockets of the county during its busiest tax collection time of the year. Armed with a mini-laptop and a device that accepts credit cards and prints receipts, four agents turned various community buildings into property tax collection posts.
"We really thought we'd get two or three people a day," said Regina Morrison Newman, the Shelby County Trustee, "but the first day at the library, there was a line when we opened."
Seizing the chance to interact with a tax agent in person and avoid the parking nightmare in downtown Memphis, county residents -- mostly senior citizens -- came to the collection posts in droves. In one week, the Shelby County Trustee's Office processed $1.1 million in tax payments from more than 900 transactions on the laptops, county officials said.
"It was just a wondrous thing for people who aren't used to websites yet," Newman said. "You can always pay on our website, but this was for the folks who still like to deal with a human being."
County officials credit new technology for making this portable program possible. The credit card device can be attached to a belt clip and uses Bluetooth technology to link to laptops, said Debra Gates, the county's chief administrative officer.
"The whole thing was designed to be very portable and very lightweight," Gates said, adding that the county spent about $1,000 per unit and about $18,000 for design and development of the in-house program. Over the course of the next five years, the county expects to spend about $3,600 per year and expand the program to reach even more people.
"We had such a positive response because government is not always known for its ease and convenience," she said. "We believe that we need to try to make it as convenient for the taxpayers as possible."
In February, the county building in downtown Memphis typically overflows with citizens trying to pay property taxes at the last minute. But this year, with the mobile cashiers out and about, Newman saw only a handful of residents in the building during that last week.
For its mobile cashiering program, the Shelby County Trustee's Office recently won an Achievement Award from the National Association of Counties (NACo), which recognizes innovative county government programs.
The irony of Shelby County's cashier program is that modern technology and mobile devices have often been criticized for minimizing human interaction. But this program succeeds because many local seniors prefer to pay in person, Gates said. In many cases, she said, they would print out the tax bill from a computer and still go to the mobile cashier to make the payment.
"They still want that personal touch," she said. "They want to walk away with a receipt."
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