Paying taxes online costly; Montgomery council challenges executive on potential savings


ROCKVILLE -- Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan's $1.1 million high-tech plan that would allow taxpayers and parking scofflaws to settle their accounts online has met its match: the 33-cent postage stamp.

eMontgomery, an electronic commerce program ballyhooed by the executive as the future of government, is under attack by County Council members, who say Duncan is too far ahead of his time.

They point to a study by a council analyst that found each eMontgomery transaction would cost the county $55 in expenses and that users would be charged a handling fee of up to $50.

"Why wouldn't someone just mail a check in for 33 cents instead of paying these fees?" council member Phil Andrews asked.

Council members say the short history of e-commerce indicates the county would be better off using eMontgomery for permit applications and other business transactions rather than for payment of tickets and tax bills.

Boston officials, who spent $250,000 on e-commerce technology, say that 2.6 percent of the more than 300,000 parking tickets issued annually are paid by computer and about 5 percent of local tax bills.

Indianapolis, with a slightly smaller population than Montgomery County, estimates that an average of 15 people a week use its online program to pay parking tickets.

Two other Montgomery council members who sit on the management and fiscal policy committee say Duncan is playing fast and loose with the facts. They are urging the full council to give Duncan $300,000 for planning the first phase of a no-frills online service to begin operating next year.

"I support e-commerce, but the executive's proposal is not documented. It is more a public relations approach than a business approach," said council member Betty Ann Krahnke.

Marilyn Praisner, committee chairwoman, said, "He rolled out something that wasn't ready to be rolled out."

Too cautious

Duncan said the council is being overly cautious, just as it was during preparations to forestall computer problems with the arrival of 2000.

"We're going to bring Montgomery County into the new economy. We will bring the council along. If they don't understand it now, they will," he said.

In a memo to the council, Duncan said eMontgomery will provide savings for "doctors, lawyers, business owners, and hourly wage employees [who] lose income from having to leave their place of employment to make a parking ticket or property tax payment."

The executive's technology staff estimates that if 25 percent of the county's 840,000 residents use eMontgomery (and if their time is worth $50 an hour), those bill payers would save $10.5 million in expenses.

Numbers questioned

That conclusion is disputed by the council's legislative analyst.

Aron Trombka calls the savings estimate "significantly overestimated," noting that Duncan's projections at a May news conference announcing eMontgomery indicated no more than 9,000 transactions a year.

Praisner said the numbers used by Duncan's staff "were a stretch."

"We don't want to get the cart before the horse, especially a cart that's loaded with $1 million," she said.

Trombka said eMontgomery's high costs result from Duncan's staff's desire to build the system from scratch rather than use existing technology and software, or hire a vendor to provide the service.

Outside vendors

Officials in Virginia's Arlington and Fairfax counties, and DeKalb County, Ga., use outside vendors to handle tax payments. Those vendors operate like TicketMaster, charging a service fee to the user but not to the county.

Arlington County Treasurer Frank O'Leary said the so-called convenience fee for handling is unavoidable because governments can bill only for the amount of taxes owed and nothing extra.

Still, he believes that the "convergence of technology" in the home -- computer, cable television and telephone -- will give residents their most effective way to access government.

"There's really no end to the amount of interaction possible," he said. "It's easy, it's personal, it's convenient, it's immediate."

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