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Tax Collections made easier with 800 Series OCR

If paying taxes is one of the "sure things" in this life, cashiers for Edward J. Rosewell Cook County Treasurer, in Illinois know one of their their "sure things" is a twice-yearly crush of property owners to pay their tax bills in person at one of six collection offices; long-standing delivery problems in the Chicago area made many taxpayers leery of putting their payment in the mail and a large percentage of them also wait until the last day of a five-week collection period. The cashiers' anxiety level dropped considerably, however, when the department changed the way walk-in payments are recorded--literally putting in their hands the solution to a major cause of fatigue, frustration and ill will on both sides of the counter.

Those paying-in-person tax-payers number some 170,000, representing more than 10 percent of the 1.5 million tax bills the treasurer's office sends out twice a year. By that measure it's the largest operation of its kind in the nation; the more than $6 billion it collects annually is exceeded only by the $7 billion collected by Orange County, CA. "You can see the difference in how quickly the lines move," says Assistant Treasurer Barbara Gorell. "They (property owners) don't want to stand in line, but it seems they all want to wait until the last day to come in to pay. Now the cashier only has to scan bills once, take the money, give a receipt and the taxpayers are on their way."

For many years Cook County tax bills have borne a line of OCR A (for optical character recognition) type that identifies the parcel number, the half-year period the bill represents and the amount due. Until early 1994 those bills were passed through a stationary Unisys mechanical OCR scanner at the cashier's work station in the downtown Chicago office or at one of the satellite offices in the suburbs. But the vagaries of the laser-based forms printing process too often placed the scan line optimum scanning position, requiring several passes above or below the through the slot scanner for a good "read" and, more often than not, failure to even get one. That meant the cashier had to manually enter the data on the keypad of the Unisys B2X series terminal. The slow-moving lines grew long and, as one observer noted, as the deadline drew closer customers got increasingly surly and cashiers became increasingly defensive.

In late 1993 the mechanical scanners were replaced by hand-held scanning wands and Model 833 readers from Caere Corp. A test run, minor debugging and training prepared everyone for the collection period that was to begin in mid-January. "The wands give us much more flexibility on positioning the scan lines," says Rosewell, noting the cashier passes the wand over the line, rather than being hampered by the machine's ability to read the form only where the line is supposed to be. The nearly 100 percent first-pass read rate meant customers moved through the process quickly, he says, noting accuracy improved, too, because manual data entry has an inherently high error rate. "The only thing the cashier has to do manually is enter the amount paid to generate the receipt," Rosewell says. The cashiers' terminals conned to a Unisys B-38 minicomputer in each office, which uploads a day's transactions overnight to the IBM 3090 mainframe. Three Xerox laser printers produce the tax bills from the data stored on the 3090. Maintaining that printer investment was another of the factors in the decision to use OCR-A. A bar code with the necessary information would have been too long to fit on the page, Rosewell notes.

After some initial uneasiness during the test period, Rosewell says, cashiers became fans of the new system. That assessment is seconded by Chuck Riley, Chicago-area sales manager for William Miles and Associates, the Caere reseller that handled the sale, worked with Unisys to integrate the systems and conducted what little training was needed. "I visited all the offices, before and after they began using the wands," he says. "I've seen the lines, watched people's tempers flare when the old system caused problems. After we installed, I spent at the most 15 minutes with each office supervisor and with each cashier. Once they learned the proper way to hold and move the scanner, a process that took maybe two minutes most of them said 'Hey, this is easy.' "It was easy for us and Unisys, too," he continues, "because the readers plugged into the RS-232 port on the terminal used by the old slot scanner.

Another benefit we discovered was that the total cost of the new wands and readers was less than what they had been paying to maintain the old slot readers." Riley says he was impressed with the reader's text editor. "The scan line contains information for six different data fields on the record. As often as I've watched them scan the forms, I've yet to see one place wrong data in the wrong field when it comes up on the screen." Rosewell says the wands and readers were chosen with the future in mind. Because they recognize OCR and several barcode symbologies, they'll be used when the treasurer's office implements a barcode system for handling delinquent tax bills. The good news in the treasurer's office didn't have to travel too far but it went fast, nonetheless. "Three hundred feet down the hall from the treasurer's office is the Cook County Department of Revenue, which issues and collects fees for six different types of permits," says Riley. "When they saw the improvement in the tax-filing system, they decided they wanted the same thing."

-- Jeff Woosnam

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