Don’t be surprised if you are directed to send the quarter tax payment due July 15 and sewer and water payments to a Massachusetts post office box. And don’t be surprised to find your check cashed within a day of being received.
Those changes are expected to be the most apparent to Warwick residents if the city moves ahead with an agreement for Citizens Bank to operate “lock boxes” for property taxes and utility payments.
What the city will gain is access to payments within a day and an end to complaints that the city is holding on to checks for as much as four months, which makes it difficult for people to reconcile checking accounts or project when funds could be withdrawn.
But while the lock box seems like a great solution for the city, which has had difficulty catching up with posting and depositing payments, and residents paying close attention to their accounts, the solution comes with a cost.
On Monday, that had some council members questioning whether the Citizens Bank agreement – $152,000 for the next two years – is the best deal and why City Treasurer David Olsen didn’t seek bids. News that the city is looking at lock boxes for tax and utility payments raised questions why the city hadn’t been in contact with the State Treasurer’s office. The state treasurer negotiated a contract with Webster Bank three years ago and the terms of that agreement have been extended to municipalities and government agencies.
“This is not a sole source provider,” Ward 4 Councilman Joseph Solomon said, establishing that institutions other than Citizens could provide lock box services. “So we are awarding a no-bid contract,” he added.
Olsen defended the selection, pointing out that Citizens has the city account; that it will take two months to set up the mechanisms for the lock boxes; and, if they had advertised for bids, there wouldn’t have been enough time to get tax bills printed with the Massachusetts address by the middle of June, when tax bills go in the mail.
“This is strictly a business decision,” Olsen said in an interview Tuesday. “We didn’t have time to go out to bid.”
He did not have the terms of the agreement beyond the projected payment for two years. With the lock boxes, the bank will cash all payments and credit the city’s account within a day. The city will get an online record of the payments; enabling the tax collector’s office, which also processes utility payments, to post accounts.
Over the last year, a combination of factors, including two staff absences, a retirement and the move for quarterly utility payments, converged for what chief of staff Mark Carruolo called a “perfect storm” to impact the city’s cash flow. But Carruolo said Tuesday that it has not reached the point where the city has to borrow funds, although it may have postponed some vendors’ payments to meet payroll and more immediate needs.
From Olsen’s perspective, the delay in processing payments has leveled off revenue, eliminating quarterly spikes in tax revenues. This has eliminated the practice of the short-term investment of cash reserves.
Although interest rates are low, Olsen believes the rapid deposit of tax and utility payments will generate sufficient revenue to pay for the lock boxes.
“I knew what we are getting with Citizens Bank. I’m looking out for the citizens of Warwick,” he said. He pointed out that Citizens operates lock boxes for Cranston, Woonsocket and Boston.
It was news to Carruolo that the state treasurer could offer the same service as a piggyback on its agreement with Webster.
According to Joy Fox, spokeswoman for Treasurer Gina Raimondo, Webster Bank is processing about 125,000 transactions a month at a cost of 35 cents per item. The city of Pawtucket, the Division of Motor Vehicles and the Rhode Island Student Loan Authority use Webster lock boxes.
“Treasury is supportive of the mayor and city of Warwick for considering a lock box program. It is great that they are constantly looking for cost-savings measures through operational efficiencies,” Fox said. “Treasury’s door remains open for technical assistance and support. This program has proven to be a successful tool for the state.”
In response to Solomon, Ken Mallette, city tax collector and assessor, told the council that the department had spent about $30,000 in overtime but was still not able to catch up with the blizzard of tax and utility payments. He said 92 percent of payments are made by check and, in the course of a year, the city collects $216 million in taxes and another $6 million in utility payments.
Asked if the lock boxes would enable the department to reduce staff, Mallette said, with the boxes, he wouldn’t have to add staff. Olsen assured the lock boxes would not result in a reduction of staff, a concern to the municipal employees union.