May 23, 2012 By Colin Wood
With dwindling funds in the coffers and booming population growth, learning to “do more with less” has become the motto of many governments, to the point it has become cliché.
But it continues to be a reality that must be dealt with in places like Bexar County, Texas, which serves more than 1.7 million residents in the San Antonio city limits and surrounding community.
One of the largest counties in the nation, growth in Bexar (pronounced “BEAR”) has continued unabated for the past 50 years, with a projected 20 percent increase in population from 2000 to 2020. There is no sign of slowing down. And Bexar County’s only revenue stream to serve that growing population is property taxes, county CIO Catherine Maras said.
So the economical way to get things done, she said, is through automation.
“The property taxes aren’t going up. They’re, in fact, going down. The commissioner’s court and the county manager run this county like a business — in a prudent, businesslike manner. And they’re not going to spend more than they have. They’re trying to close the gap and provide the same level of services through technology.”
The good news for Bexar County, Maras said, is that it has leadership that understands the role of technology in government. “We’re the change agents,” Maras said. “We’re the transformers here. We enable a county mission.” In this case, the CIO’s mission is to find ways to save the county money, which she did with the help of a new enterprise resource planning (ERP) system. “They charged me with finding $5 million of savings and we exceeded that,” she said.
Much of Bexar County’s plan for saving money includes using technology across every department to work smarter, Maras said. “I came into Bexar County and I noticed we were very manually intensive, a very siloed government,” she said. “Putting someone in jail — it’s the San Antonio police, it’s the Bexar County sheriff, the district clerk, the judges.” Bringing together those entities to find a smarter, automated solution was her starting point.
To find that $5 million in savings, Maras said she looked at everything they were doing to make sure it was being done in the best way possible. Renegotiating contracts with IT vendors saved the county $1 million annually, Maras said.
The county abandoned paper-based certified documents for more savings. “I had one of my programmers do an Adobe form, and we basically transformed the way they did certified documents and we saved thousands of hours of time, just by that,” she said. The new forms also can be redeployed to other service areas, she said.
To bring in money owed to the constable’s office, the county began sending out postcards printed in the county’s own printing room. More than $2 million has been collected so far. And even better, Maras said, is they’re saving money on the printing by doing it in-house. The postcards are automatically printed each week to continue bringing in funding.
Other automated processes include an e-truancy portal that allows schools to enter cases directly into the court docket, e-citations that allow tickets to be directly entered into a case management system, and an interactive voice response system for court date reminders. “Just look at what you’re doing, and do it smarter,” Maras said about the county’s philosophy.
Upcoming projects for Bexar County include an integrated justice system that will change the point of view from case-centric to person-centric, in order to automatically view a person’s profile rather than needing to search manually for individual cases. The county is also planning to implement an e-discovery system.
“We’re about to start looking into social media and ideasourcing,” Maras said, “and looking at how to gain some information of what [people] want, of what to do next. We really want to have communication with our citizenry. I think it’s important. They pay our bills.”
Bexar County is famous for Spanish missions, San Antonio’s River Walk, and theme parks. Located in the heart of Texas, Bexar County is also known for being where the Battle of the Alamo occurred. Now occupying just a tiny portion of the state, in 1836 Bexar County stretched across much of the western Republic of Texas, occupying much of present-day New Mexico, Colorado and Wyoming.
Once the center of a now much-romanticized American Old West, Bexar County’s government sometimes still shows remnants of those times in the way that it operates, Maras said. “It has a very rich history, it’s very progressive,” she said. “We cherish the history, but we build for the future.”