July 26, 2013 By Wayne Hanson
(Note, updated August 5, 2013 to include a link to the NACo Tech Summit presentations.)
It didn't take long before those attending the National Association of Counties' (NACo) annual conference in Fort Worth, were reminded that they were in Texas. Cathy Talcott, the Comal County Tax Assessor-Collector -- presenting the county's QR-Coded tax bills -- mentioned she was formerly a professional opera singer, construction company owner, arts administrator, ad agency exec, now an elected official, and she and her husband run a self-storage business. "This ain't my first rodeo, honey," she joked.
With the QR-coded tax bill, the taxpayer can scan the code and go directly to their tax form in the county tax system. Of the county's population of 110,000, Talcott said that 83 percent are under 65 years of age. Younger people growing up with mobile devices typically have contact with her office once or twice a year -- big volume for a 21-person office that just lost another position, so efficiency is a must.
The previous website took payments, she said, but was prone to bugs and required lots of staff time to guide taxpayers through it. The QR codes work well so far, she said, although the big test will come at tax crunch time. Transactions cost the taxpayer 2.2 percent plus 30 cents. Large governments can get 1.9 percent, she said.
The system does not require PayPal -- taxpayers can also use a credit card. Talcott credited Sturgis Web Services for the integration, and said with the new system, calls and problems have dropped, collections have increased by 15 percent, and people can print out their tax statement "from home in their PJs." The new system also garnered the county a 2013 County Best Practices award from the Texas Association of Counties.
San Diego County Justice Electronic Library System (JELS)
Two of the document management sessions at the NACo tech summit were about courts -- the most heavily paper-based areas of county government.
Susan Green, assistant CIO of the San Diego County, Calif., Technology Office, did a live demo with a test case file -- a brave move in front of a conference of elected officials -- to illustrate how it provides access to files quickly and comprehensively. In delinquency courts, kids come back again and again, so the files are large. With documents input by mental health professionals, law enforcement, drug treatment facilities, schools, etc., the workflow is complicated and requires tight security.
All except about four percent of cases in San Diego County are handled by county defense attorneys and a typical attorney will handle 20 cases before noon, said Green, so hard copy files require a cart to haul them, and extensive tabbing and organization for quick access in front of the judge. The electronic system gives access to everything from a laptop or tablet, and the workflow is automated as well, duplicating the hard copy workflow, pulling in documents from the court case management and probation case management systems.
In the last seven days, said Green, 2,275 documents came into case files electronically.
Booking opens the case automatically and populates it with booking data. Green demonstrated adding a letter to the file. It shows up immediately in the case file documents list. Files sent back and forth are also noted as having been received and opened to ensure information has arrived. The system will soon expand to handle juvenile dependency information and according to Green, other types of cases may also be added in the future.
Attorneys like going into court with a laptop instead of a stack of boxes or files, but they need to appear competent and so the system must be fast and files must be easy to locate. External providers like mental health professionals complete much of the necessary data entry. In order to enter data, they need a case file number, and then the correct file is populated automatically.
Dallas County, Texas, Courts
Even though the Texas Supreme Court recently mandated e-filing for civil and trial-level courts by 2014, Dallas County ramped up its system in 2009.
All courts in Dallas County, Texas, are paperless, according to Dallas County Clerk John F. Warren. There are 65 courts with approximately 160,000 active cases annually. Over 12 million documents are scanned annually, representing in excess of 100 million pages. Since the courts must retain records for seven years, that adds up to a a huge volume of records.
Before digitization, said Warren, the county spent over $600,000 for case jackets. Now there are no case jackets, no toner, no paper, and digital signatures will be added by the end of this quarter -- the only process not yet digitized. The only paper the courts handle is what the customer requests over the counter. The state passed legislation authorizing fees for documents, so the the county gets a $10 filing fee.
Warren said the staff used to spend 20 hours a week looking for a document that a judge needed for a trial. That doesn't happen now and the county will have mobile access to electronic records by the end of the year. "We are problably the only county in Texas," said Warren, "who rolled out iPads to judges, departments that interface with us, etc. I refuse to provide paper to anybody. I'll give you access and the ability to print, but no paper."
The county saves about $1.2 million annually on operating expenses, and all records are backed up securely. A cloud initiative increased collaboration and information-sharing. If someone comes bearing paper, the county's goal is to have it digitized and available in 24 hours.
Macomb County, Mich.
Macomb County, Mich., partnered with Google and Xerox to build a land records system that anyone could use. "If your county has deeds online," said Macomb County's Chief Deputy Clerk Todd Schmitz, "try looking up your deed right now. In most cases, it's not easy, even though property records are public. We wanted a system the average homeowner could use and that would generate income."
The county's "superindex" allows the public to search 7 million records, and the results screen comes up like a Google search. A deed from the 1800s for example, appears large enough to see what it is, but "not big enough to get it without paying $6 for it." Customers use Google Wallet virtual payment service to pay for requested documents. And there are "upsell opportunities," Schmitz explained, if you need a death certificate for an owner, for example. County staff uses Google analytics to glean information from site visitors.
All over the country, community leaders are looking to boost economic development through various initiatives. One key element in many of those initiatives is the use of information technology. When local governments build IT infrastructure, create e-government applications, assist high-tech startups or otherwise focus on technology, they create conditions that draw businesses to their communities and help retain skilled workers. This paper discusses and provides examples of these various ways local government can use technology to ultimately make a community more attractive to businesses, visitors and residents.