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Cape Girardeau council members recently approve purchase of software to streamline transactions

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

(Photo)
Customer service representative Belinda Jones hands a receipt to Arthur Eldridge after the Cape Girardeau resident paid his utility bill Tuesday at Cape Girardeau City Hall.
ADAM VOGLER
avogler@semissourian.com [Order this photo]
Two years from now, less paper could be changing hands between city department heads and staff. Residents paying bills in the nick of time could avoid shutoffs. An owner of a new restaurant seeking a liquor license may not need to set foot in city hall. Reports requested by the city council on the number of ordinance violations could be compiled within hours instead of a week.

It will take some time to get there, say members of the city of Cape Girardeau's staff. But once there, staffers believe the years of work will be worth it.

City council members recently approved the purchase of a new software system, along with training for employees, based on a recommendation by city staff. Approximately $500,000 from an unreserved fund balance will pay for the system. When preparing the budget for this year, funds were earmarked for the project as the city's current system, which has been in use since 1998, was nearing the end of its useful life.

Assistant city manager Heather Brooks and other staff members visited nine cities using the software during the selection process. Brooks said from what staff has learned so far, it appears the benefits of the system, which could take up to 24 months to become effective, are two-fold.

For residents and businesses

The software the city is purchasing comes from Tyler Technologies, a Texas-based company that specializes in software systems for the public sector. Brooks said the system will offer several features for use by residents and businesses including access to "central cashiering," an account with a page where residents can view and pay any bills owed for utlities, license fees or other charges associated with city services. Reports of city ordinance violations also will be taken online, and anyone who submits a complaint will receive a response to update the status of his or her request. The same manner of service will be seen with applications for business licenses and liquor licenses. The city currently offers online bill pay, but Brooks said the features of the software should further enhance service.

"Basically, they log on, see what they owe and look at their usage, and choose what they want to pay," Brooks said.

City officials also see the use of the new system as a way to better communicate between departments and help avoid human error that sometimes leads to dissatisfied customers.

"Nothing's worse than when you come in, you think you've paid on time, and then it gets disconnected," Brooks said of a situation that can arise when utility payments arrive late -- too late for customer service to remove a resident or business from a disconnect list. "It's a huge inconvenience for our residents."

For city staff

"It's just little things, which we are doing now, that are going to be completely different with the new system," said Trisha Holloway, the city's customer service manager. "We're finally going to be letting the system work for our benefit instead of working against us."

Holloway and her staff, along with employees in the city's human resources, utilities and finance departments, are looking forward to saving time. For years the departments' employees have been manually entering data then printing out lists or reports to issue work orders or payroll or prepare help plans for development services. The toll on efficiency can be seen in the hours it takes to compile some of those items, according to Holloway.

Readying the water shutoff list with the current system, for example, takes Holloway between two and three hours. With the new system, that time could be knocked down to as little as five to 10 minutes, which she said will help staff avoid issuing orders to shut off service when bills have just been paid.

Marc Ciarnello, the city's information technology director, said the new software will be more reliable. Since he began working for the city earlier this year, he has adjusted the hours of some of his department's employees so they can come in early enough to start up systems properly before the day begins. Some departments' systems take a half-hour to an hour to open and reach full functionality because of the age of the system, he said, and before he adjusted hours, customers and employees were sitting and waiting for computers to be ready.

"What we have now just doesn't give us the tools to be the professionals we all want to be," said Brooks. "It's really been holding us back, and we are ready for that to change."

City manager Scott Meyer said working across department lines more effectively for the benefit of residents, businesses and officials and staff has been a topic since he began working for the city in 2009.

"People used to deal with the city one way at a time, and the expectation -- and it's right -- is that the city should find efficiencies and have that flexibility," he said. "We're excited about this because we think we are really going to see that happen."

Brooks said faster compilation of reports requested by city council as they consider new ordinances or changes to current ordinances and better general tracking of ordinance violations also should help city staff keep a finger on potential issues.

"If there's an area where we need to be aggressive in enforcement, we'll know about it much sooner," she said.

Implementation of the software is scheduled to be phased in with extensive training for employees over the next two years. The final phases are set to add the billing and license application services for residents.

eragan@semissourian.com

388-3627

Pertinent address:

401 Independence St., Cape Girardeau, MO

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