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SF Tax Portal Nets Unprecedented Filings

Residents filed roughly $241 million in property taxes within two weeks at the end of last year.

With a new federal tax code looming in 2018, many San Francisco residents wanted to file their property taxes for the coming year before any of the new rules went into effect, potentially costing them money.

With this in mind, members of the local media — reporters and photographers — flocked to City Hall in December, specifically to the San Francisco treasurer’s office, hoping to capture footage of long lines and to conduct interviews with citizens while they waited. The lines, however, were nonexistent when the reporters arrived, city officials said.

But it wasn’t because nobody was filing their property taxes in advance. In fact, it was the opposite. As much as $241 million in property tax revenue was collected in less than two weeks during December, an amount that represents 11 times what was collected during the same period the previous year.

So what changed? Well, in the fall the city went live with a new portal that allowed users to do most — if not all — of their tax business online.

“That was absolutely critical, actually,” said Treasurer José Cisneros. “That system itself and its customer service capabilities really allowed these very rushed — and maybe in some ways unprepared — payers to just jump online quickly, whether they had a coupon in hand or not, and be able to find their actual bill on our system, go online and pay it. People were doing this all during those days leading up to the deadline, and many of them on the very last day of the tax year. It was really that system that made those thousands of payments possible.”

This system will, of course, also be available to anyone paying taxes moving forward. The new system, which is powered by Adobe Experience Manager Forms, consolidated what was previously four tax payment portals into a single system, complete with simplified language and automated notices for taxpayers. Cisneros' office, which handles both city and county payments to the tune of roughly $9 billion a year, is one of the first government organizations at the municipal level to embrace a portal of this scale.

Residents of other jurisdictions were not as fortunate as those in San Francisco. Media outlets, like the Chicago Tribune and Denver Post, ran stories and photos of people waiting in line to pay their taxes before the year ended.

In San Francisco, however, the end result of having a new online system was that taxpayers seeking to get their payments in before the new federal code went into effect were able to do it from home, rather than coming downtown to wait to have them processed manually. This not only saved taxpayer time, but it also saved city staff time that would have previously been spent processing the in-person payments.

Tajel Shah, chief assistant treasurer for San Francisco, said this speaks to a common problem in government: pushing past aged technical infrastructure to create agile products for consumers that expediate dealings with antiquated back-end systems.

If there was any downside, it was that the local media struggled to get the visuals and interactions they wanted for their stories, said Amanda Fried, a policy and communications manager with the treasurer’s office.

“All I did the last week in December was chat with really bored cameramen who were standing around because there were no lines,” Fried said.

Associate editor for Government Technology magazine.