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City of Santa Monica customer application story

Most municipal utilities would like to automate bill processing, but can't afford the $50,000-$500,000 solutions available to regional public utility companies. They're stuck processing bills the old-fashioned way: slowly, and with lots of opportunity for errors. But this is the story of one city -- Santa Monica, California -- that found a lower-cost solution.

For only $15,000 and no changes to existing software, the Santa Monica Water Department automated its bill processing last December. Utility billing supervisor Ron Mason says the system quickly justified itself in savings related to processing time and accuracy. "Without doing a formal analysis, I'd say it's paid for itself 10 times over by this point," he says.

The city's water department bills each of its 16,000 accounts bimonthly, and processes 1,500-2,000 bills per week. In the past, the department used bar code pens, but had trouble with accuracy and reliability. "We used them to scan in the account number and amount from the bills, but it would take several tries to get the pens to read the bar code," Mason says. "They had to be held at just the right angle, and we were afraid some of the staff would get carpal tunnel syndrome, which had happened in other city departments. What couldn't be scanned was hand-typed, and errors would result."

The department installed a Batch Document Processor and a Combination OCR slot scanner, both attached to a PC. "The batch reader automates the scanning, preventing operator injury," Mason says. "With the slot scanner as a backup for bills that the batch reader can't scan for some reason, we rarely have to hand-type documents anymore."

"It used to take us 30-45 minutes for every 200-300 payments," Mason says. "Now we can do them in 15 minutes. We're down to zero errors, because the batch reader stops when it can't read something. We almost never have to hand enter; maybe two times per shift, and then it's probably because a bill was cut wrong by the printer and the scan line is shifted too high or too low."

The department also has a Slot Reader on the front counter in the customer lobby to handle payments from walk-in customers. Like the other units, the reader is connected to a keyboard and is operated by swiping a single payment stub through a slot. The lobby reader is programmed to send only the account information to the teller window PC, which is running the utility payment database entry screen. A city employee types in the dollar amount accepted from each walk-up customer. "We chose the slot reader for the counter because it gets our employees back to work at their desk quicker," Mason said.

The department runs custom billing software on a mainframe, using the PC as a terminal emulator. Eventually it will get rid of the mainframe and go to a Windows based system operating on a PC local area network.

Mason says part of the reason the department chose the Data ID Systems' solution was its simplicity. "It's an easy interface requiring no special software. We considered other systems that were much more sophisticated, but they required custom software and other host conversions from us. With the Data ID solution, we were scanning live bills into the system during the first product demonstration."

"When the time came for installation, it took maybe five minutes to install. In fact, I installed the equipment myself by just plugging it into the keyboards. The technology integrators had already preprogrammed the reader to emulate the keystroke sequence we use to enter the bills into our custom software. Now our computer receives the keystrokes as though the bills were being typed in, but much faster and from a machine."

The batch reader can be programmed to handle partial pay documents, and Santa Monica plans to implement that program soon. The city also intends to move from bar code to OCR in order to save on toner costs (bar codes require much more toner than OCR characters) and avoid duplex printing, since OCR takes less space on the page.

"I would definitely urge other municipal utilities to take this approach," Mason says. "As the city grows, we're not going to have to add any extra manual labor to handle the increased number of water bills. If necessary, I can run the whole program by myself."

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