As property tax collection season nears, the Franklin County Collector’s Office is dealing with a snafu with its smartphone app.
The county has been having an issue with the app being labeled on phones as “CashRail County” instead of “Franklin County.” Collector of Revenue Doug Trentmann said he is working on fixing the issue but acknowledges that having the name of a private payment processing company on the label could be a deterrent for people the county is desperately looking to discourage from sending payments by mail.
“It’s got to say ‘Franklin County,’ ” he said. “We own the thing. They run it for us.”
In its first year, during the 2020 tax season, the county’s app was one of several popular methods that limited the number of people who waited in line at the county government center in downtown Union to pay their taxes around the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic. The app was promoted as an alternative to paying in person because people who pay with the app receive a digital receipt as they pay whereas people who pay by mail have to wait to get a receipt in the mail.
In years past, the line to pay personal property and real estate taxes would often stretch outside near the Dec. 31 deadline. But in 2020, it barely went around the corner of the hallway near the collector’s office.
About a quarter of the county’s taxpayers waited until Dec. 31 to pay in 2020, which is normal. What Trentmann said was a big change was that many paid online, by phone or by mail.
This year, a big change from 2020 will come on the tax bills themselves. A QR code that will take users to the Apple or Google stores on their phone will be prominently displayed on bills. That is designed to get more people using the app.
Another change, this one within the app, is that users will no longer be able to pay using electronic checks. They will have to use credit or debit cards. Trentmann said too many e-checks bounced last year.
“The problem with e-checks is it’s harder to notify people,” he said. “It caused us too many problems when the payments were bouncing.”
Forte, the system used for desktop computers that also can be used on smartphone web browsers, will still accept e-checks. Trentmann said Forte has a better verification system for e-checks than the app.
The county used $389,000 in federal CARES Act money to purchase the app in 2020. Presiding Commissioner Tim Brinker said, despite some “growing pains,” it was still a good investment.
“Well, my feeling is these things are rare and minor compared to the convenience of having a way to pay instead of having to come in and that it’s really a great tool for the county and the taxpayers to utilize,” Brinker said.
Mail still rules
Mail remains the dominant form of payment, with 77,000 items going through the U.S. Postal Service (USPS).
The county will still mail tax bills to every tax account, though Trentmann hopes to eventually send bills by email to people who have paid online in the past. That is part of the goal to reduce the need for mail, which was slow for some last year and could be even slower and more expensive for the county in 2021 given recent announcements by the USPS.
“The No. 1 thing people need to be aware of is the mail is going to be slow,” he said. “If you’re thinking of dropping it off in the mail Dec. 31, you’d better get it postmarked.”
Once again, the collector’s office will be open Dec. 31 while other services in the government center will be closed.
Franklin County taxpayers should be able to make payments a little earlier than last year, when the system went online Nov. 1, Trentmann said.
“We might start in late October, but the goal is to have the bills out by Nov. 1,” he said.
Though COVID-19 might not be the same threat this year as it was during the 2020 tax season, Trentmann said paying online is still beneficial. It saves time and money compared with mailing in bills.
The total amount owed in the county for 2021 has not yet been finalized, but with property values in Franklin County up more than 8 percent since last year, it is expected to be a large increase over the $130 million owed when tax collection started in 2020, Trentmann said.
Currently, the county has 70,732 real estate tax bills and 45,691 personal property tax bills to issue, but Trentmann said both those numbers will rise.