Pay bills by phone
City's interactive technology hasn't caught on yet

Richard Gleeson
Northern News Services

NNSL (Oct 06/99) - If everyone was using technology currently available at city hall there would be virtually no reason, apart from city council meetings, to ever set foot in the building.

But despite the numerous accolades it has received in the south, residents have not been flocking to the city's telephone and Internet billing systems.

The city has tracked monthly use of the interactive voice response system, which allows people to pay bills by telephone. Those figures -- which run to March 1999 -- show use is slowly increasing but that in its busiest month no more than 600 people have used the IVR system to pay their water bills. That equates to about 13 per cent of the total number of bills issued.

Still, combined with the host of other services residents can access over the telephone or Internet, finance director Robert Charpentier says the system will pay for itself within about four years.

"There's a certain percentage of people we can't get, people that like to come in and pay," said Charpentier.

"We tried to do a bit of marketing at the spring trade show, we had a little booth set up, and that was quite effective."

Charpentier said cashiers at city hall are also encouraging customers who come in to pay to consider paying from home.

Systems manager Prem Persad said the aim is to have half of the water bills paid by customers from home by the end of this year.

"It's a bit ambitious, but I think we can do it," said Persad.

The savings come in staff time saved in dealing with inquiries, data entry and bill payment. Charpentier estimated the $105,000 cost of setting up the IVR system was recovered in the first two-and-a-half years of operation.

It will take a little longer, six years, to recover the $250,000 cost of an automated facility and program booking system introduced in 1997.

Charpentier said the time savings have not translated into staff reductions, but have allowed the city to take on more administrative responsibilities, such as lottery licensing.

The city has been increasing its automated customer service for the last four years. The IVR system began in 1996, providing property tax information by telephone.

The system has been expanded to allow residents to deal with water bills, traffic and parking tickets, business licences, registration for city programs and rental of city facilities.

The high-tech advances continue apace. In June, the city introduced a pre-authorized billing system that automatically deducts water bill and tax payments from people's credit cards.

About 700 people have registered for that bill payment option, said Persad.

"In total we have about 1,200 people registered in both (credit and debit card) systems," said Persad.