What Technology Can Do for Tax Administration

Moving to a new, integrated system gave an Idaho county the tools it needed to cope with the real-estate bust.
March 24, 2015 AT 9:00 AM
By Laurie Thomas  |  Contributor
Laurie Thomas is the chief deputy treasurer of Kootenai County, Idaho.

Like so much of the rest of the country, Kootenai County, Idaho, was pounded by the real-estate downturn that began in 2007. The property bust was especially hard on the resort town of Coeur d'Alene, the county's largest municipality, where the market for second homes had been driven to record highs.

The prolonged period of year-to-year increases in foreclosures and tax delinquencies that followed found the county treasurer's office at the center of a storm, forced to become highly proactive in collecting the maximum amount of tax revenues that were due while simultaneously dealing with an upsurge in constituent demands -- just as decreasing revenues were bringing budget shortfalls. Fortunately, some of the decisions the treasurer's office had made before the property bubble burst helped it weather the storm.

Eight years ago, the treasurer's office, where I am the chief deputy, took the major step of moving away from a legacy tax-management system to a new browser-based system that integrates information with the county assessor's and recorder's offices. That decision turned out to be of vital importance during the years that followed.

In 2007, we had a full-time staff of 11, augmented by three part-timers. Due to retirements and other normal attrition, this staff decreased, and we did not fill these positions. Today, we have a full-time staff of seven with one part-timer for two weeks of the year -- a 37 percent reduction in the office's workforce. Yet in each of the last eight years our office has reached higher levels of efficiency than in the previous year.

We've also been able to do more with less. Before the staff reductions, it took us three weeks, working days and nights, to get the tax bills out. Now, it takes our smaller staff less than a week to do so. And while we would previously work from the second week in December to the end of January to acknowledge, "chase" and deposit tax payments, now we are done by Dec. 31, with the county receiving additional revenues from accrued interest.

Since our databases are integrated across the county, we can work closely with the recorder's, auditor's and assessor's offices ensuring that all of the data balances before we actually get to the tax-bill-printing stage. To some tax offices that may not seem like a major issue, but to those whose technology requires that they go through the entire printing process before realizing there is a problem, this is a major efficiency gain.

By offering online public access, we provide our constituents with better customer-service. They can review property data and assessed value and even pay their tax bills online. This has helped to reduce traffic in our offices by over 30 percent while enhancing our personalized one-on-one customer service, providing immediate access to information and improving our levels of staff productivity.

This personalized customer service has really made a difference for the constituents we serve. One family I know lost a large chunk of its retirement nest egg in the recession, leaving them struggling to make their property-tax payments. We were able to set them up for monthly rather than semi-annual payments -- a significant difference for them in how they were able to manage their monthly cash flow. We would not have been able to monitor such a payment schedule in our legacy system.

These system improvements have allowed us to concentrate on what we are really here to do -- to efficiently manage property taxes, fairly manage county revenues and provide the most helpful service to our constituents.