Friday, July 31, 2009

Online Tax Payments

I've been waiting eagerly to use the city's new online payment option for property taxes, launched this summer. Today was payday and my car tax is due August 3rd, so today was the day to do it.

I'd been reading the letters to the editor in the Rep-Am written by taxpayers who were angry at having to pay a 3% convenience fee for paying by credit card. I didn't think this was a real problem, since they have always done that. The credit card companies charge the city that fee, so the city passes it on to the credit card user so that they don't lose any tax revenue. Nothing new there.

A letter to the editor from Steve Gambini, the Mayor's aide, seemed to clarify everything. Yes, there's a 3% fee for using a credit card, but that's normal. If you pay online by check, the fee is only fifty cents. Given that a stamp costs nearly that much and snail mail requires an earlier payment, I was content.

I went online this morning and eventually manoeuvred through the bill pay site (I had to do it twice--after I got through maybe five or six screens, I got a message telling me that I was using the wrong browser and needed to switch to Firefox). I finally got to the section where you actually pay the bill and was shocked by what I saw.

For a payment of $155.89, there is a mystery convenience fee of $4.68 which appears to be completely separate from the "convenience" fees related to the form of payment. That's a 3% fee, completely unexplained. I started getting very upset, but in the interest of properly testing the system for myself, I continued with the payment (also, I really didn't want to go wait in line for an hour at the Tax Collector's office).

Lo and behold! When you enter your direct debit information and move on to the next screen, the 3% fee magically transforms into the 50¢ fee!

I'll keep using the site to pay my taxes, but whoever designed the tax payment site needs to take a remedial course in User-Friendly Design.


Anonymous said...

As with any project that involves as many moving parts and institutions, there is a debugging process involved.

I'll altert IT and the vendors to your issues as we continue to refine this new service between the first and second installment periods.


Anonymous said...

so what's 3 percent on a $6,500 tax bill?

Waterbury Girl said...

Thanks SG -- compared to other complex launches I've seen, the bugs here aren't bad at all, in that they are easy fixes. I think the most important bug fix is to change the line in my first screenshot image from "Convenience Fee" to "Convenience Fee if Paying By Credit Card (if paying by Direct Debit, 50¢)". Or something like that.

Three percent of $6,500 is $195, but why would you subject yourself to that fee? Whether you pay online, in person or via snail mail, you have to pay that fee so long as you are paying by credit card. Pay with a check in person or via snail mail; pay by direct debit online. Simple and no percentage fee, just the cost of your time and either a stamp or fifty cents.

As pointed out in Mr. Gambini's letter, that fee is not really the city's fee. That fee is charged by Visa and MasterCard every time you use credit. This is why some small retailers still refuse to accept credit cards--they simply can't afford to stay in business if they lose a percentage of all their transactions.

I pay almost all of my bills online using direct debit. The only one for which I still mail in a check is my HSBC auto loan--for some reason, their bill pay was set up to accept only credit cards, which meant I had to pay the extra fee.

If the city didn't pass the credit card fee on to the credit card user, they would lose 3% of all taxes paid that way. In order to make up for the shortfall in revenue, the mill rate would have to be increased. Nobody wants that.

Anonymous said...

Some people would pay the 3% fee by using credit card simply because they might not have the cash to pay it on the right time.