Milwaukee County was facing difficult times, along with most of the rest of the country. The county had lost 5% in assessed values, which eroded its tax revenue, and the state legislature had enacted a tax freeze that limited what the county could do to offset those losses. Unions had agreed to some concessions, so labor costs were steady, but other costs were rising, while the county’s short-term investments were yielding less and other sources of revenue were also down.
But Treasurer Daniel Diliberti says difficult times can be good times to make improvements because people are more willing to concede that things have to change. Milwaukee County’s Treasurer’s Office implemented a number of changes in the way it did business, many of them involving online capabilities.
For example, it put in place the State Income Tax Refund Interception to collect delinquent property taxes. “That really helps us in our collections,” Diliberti says. The county must first notify residents that it intends to place them in the program. “Ironically, when we send out the notices, we get more payments from people than from the tax intercept,” he says. “They pay us so we don’t touch their tax refunds.”
The Treasurer’s Office switched from paying employees with checks to direct deposit, thus saving all the costs of dealing with lost or stolen checks, while making debit cards available for employees who lacked bank accounts. It also switched to electronic funds transfer for business payments, eliminating 2,000 paper checks a month.
The county gave residents online access to records about delinquent property taxes and unclaimed funds, a move that cut the Treasurer’s Office’s incoming phone calls by 75%. At the same time, it gave people the ability to pay their property taxes online, and Diliberti says more and more are doing so. “It’s a convenience, I think,” he says, adding that people’s credit cards may charge them less interest than the 18% annual penalty the state charges. “If they have a lower rate than that, they’re better off putting it on their credit card.”
The Treasurer’s Office also revamped the process for processing cash receipts from the Parks Department, reducing the cash receipts from that group by 80%, and is now looking at other departments where it could implement that change.
With the changes in place, the Milwaukee County Treasurer’s Office doubled its revenue from delinquent tax collections and improved its investment returns. It also increased productivity to the point where it cut staffing to 7 employees from 9. “When we voluntarily cut our staff by 23%, they couldn’t believe it,” Diliberti says.