It sounds easy enough: Open the envelope; take out the check; credit the account; and deposit the check. It’s done.
That’s why Paul Mortimer, who sent in his city utility payment on Feb. 1, is wondering why his check didn’t clear the bank until last week. He’s not alone, although crews have been able to catch up from much of the tsunami of utility and tax payments that flooded the collectors’ office in January.
As it turns out, a variety of factors have delayed what should be a fairly routine process. Some of the delay can be attributed to a lack of staff. According to City Personnel Director Oscar Shelton, two of the department’s six cashiers are out on leave for personal reasons.
Gumming up the works are those who pay their utility and tax bills online through their bank. One would assume this would expedite the progress, but it doesn’t if the information is less than complete, or incorrectly entered, said Edward Tavares of the collectors’ office.
Notices are identified by account numbers. So, for example, the office will receive a check from the bank for an amount covering the taxes for several motor vehicles, but the number the taxpayer has used is for real estate taxes or a water bill. Tavares said the office could get 800 to 1,000 of these payments at a single time, requiring personnel to match payments with invoices.
The advice he offers taxpayers is to use quarterly payment notices they are sent at the beginning of the fiscal year. Stubs for quarterly payments have account numbers that easily enable the matching of the payment and the invoice.
Then there is the process of filling vacancies that, in some instances, can add up to months, says the mayor’s chief of staff, Mark Carruolo. Jobs must be posted before being filled and then, as Carruolo points out, there is a period of training.
Mortimer, who worked in banking for 47 years before retiring, imagines the city would want to deposit payments as soon as they are made so that it can start earning interest. His answer would be to hire additional personnel or use people from other departments during crunch times.
Tavares said his people are working overtime. Personnel from other departments have also helped with the backlog, said Shelton.
Yet other protocols hamstring the city from either using new techniques, which are available to the private sector that might expedite the process of filling a vacancy when it occurs. Carruolo said the city is exploring a lock box system from a Massachusetts vendor that would promptly deposit checks. Should the city move in that direction, it would have to solicit bids and make an award and that would take several months.
And while the collectors’ office could be operating under a full complement, when a vacancy occurs in another department, that job must be posted. Workers in other jobs are eligible to apply and may get the job based on a written test and interview, thereby creating a vacancy in another department.
Shelton calls this “the rolling effect.”
And, in the past year, 86 positions have been filled or are in the process of being filled. Of that total, 32 are newly hired firefighters that are expected to dramatically reduce overtime costs. The city currently has 16 vacant positions, Shelton said.
Although this is not the case in the collectors’ office, Shelton said department directors will “drag” filling a post so as to cover unbudgeted overtime incurred earlier in the year.
And then there are employees who retire with unused vacation time. As a rule, said Shelton, those positions are not filled until the vacation time is paid out over the duration of the period. Otherwise, the city would be paying two salaries for one position.
Does this all apply to why Mr. Moritmer’s check wasn’t processed until last week?
No, but like so many things, it’s often not one obvious thing that either creates or solves the problem.