Riverside is the first county in California to use an automated system that enables taxpayers to pay their current secured property tax bills with a credit card and Touch-Tone telephone. Taxpayers have seemingly embraced the system, spurred by its convenience as well as frequent flyer miles, discounts on new vehicles and other premiums offered by credit card companies.

From Nov. 1 -- when the system officially went online -- through Jan. 18, the Treasurer/Tax Collector's Office recorded 4,395 transactions totaling more than $8.4 million.

Treasurer/Tax Collector R. Wayne Watts said that the number of credit card transactions for the first installment of 1995-96 secured property tax bills due Dec. 10 "really surprised us. The system has been an outstanding success."

The interactive voice response system has already been modified to better accommodate the volume of telephone calls anticipated from property owners before the second installment deadline of April 10. Although the system is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, the bulk of the property owners who used the system to pay their first installments called during regular business hours or early evening -- and often heard a busy signal.

"We had no idea what kind of response there would be because this service hasn't been offered before," explained Willie Greer, chief of the county's Voice Networks Division. "The Treasurer/Tax Collector's Office accepted the Discover Card in the past, but people had to walk up to the counter and the card had to be swiped through an electronic system. Once we opened the service to Mastercard and Visa, we just opened the flood gates. It's been quite a learning process."

Both the taxpayers and county benefit from the system, according to Watts. "There are a lot of people who like to control how they make that payment," he said. "When they pay electronically, they don't have to worry about their payment getting lost in the mail or losing a postage stamp. They can pay up to the very last day and hour before the tax deadline, plus receive all the benefits that come with the card."

The system also fits Watts' vision of using technology to reduce administrative costs and provide accurate information to taxpayers as efficiently as possible. It is comprised of a personal computer that extracts information from the county's IBM mainframe and plays it for the caller.

"It's very costly to manually process checks and respond to inquiries," he said. "We are trying to encourage people, especially the new generation who are very computer-oriented, to use any electronic medium not only for accessing information, but making payments."

Customers who now show up in the office with a credit card are directed to a special telephone installed in the lobby with a direct connection to the system.

CUSTOMER DEMAND

The idea of paying property taxes by credit card was raised during the recession a couple of years ago. A number of property owners asked if they could pay their tax bills in monthly installments without delinquent penalties. "We always recited the law, which says you can pay in two installments due Dec. 10 and April 10," Watts said.

If state law was changed to allow more installments, the cost of revamping the county's computer system and hiring additional staff to process multiple payments would be staggering. "It made more sense for customers to make credit card payments," he said.

Credit cards were discussed during meetings of Southern California treasurers/tax collectors. But according to Watts, the idea stalled because Visa and Mastercard didn't think there would be enough volume to make it worthwhile.

The dilemma of recouping the fee credit card companies charge merchants for allowing their customers to pay via credit card also needed to be resolved. By not recovering the cost of accepting credit cards,