Baltimore residents who pay cash for water, sewer and other municipal bills could avoid a trip downtown - and the line at the Municipal Building - if the city adopts a plan to install neighborhood-based self-service kiosks.
The City Council held a hearing yesterday on a resolution to study the feasibility of installing ATM-like machines around Baltimore that would accept payments for municipal bills. Proponents say the kiosks would improve efficiency, save time and make the city more customer-friendly.
"For most people, going to a government office building downtown to pay bills during working hours is extremely inconvenient. For others, such as senior citizens or those who rely on public transportation, it is an extreme burden," said City Council President Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake.
"People who come to pay parking tickets sometimes end up getting a parking ticket," she said.
City officials have yet to determine how much it would cost to install the machines, but they project that the kiosks could save up to $6 per transaction and provide 99 percent accuracy on revenue collection. Backers say they hope to save as much as $2 million a year by installing the machines around the city.
Similar kiosks are already in use in Chicago and Milwaukee.
The city processes nearly 3 million payments a year, most of them through the mail. About 340,000 payments a year come in person at a city office downtown, according to the Bureau of Revenue Collections.
The city already offers on-line bill paying and telephone payments by credit card. Residents can also pay bills at 233 branches of Global Express, a company that offers money orders and other financial services, including payment of gas, electric and other kinds of bills. About 41,000 payments are processed annually through Global Express, according to the revenue collection bureau.
City officials said the kiosks could be placed at library branches, police stations or other convenient locations.
Henry Raymond, the head of the Bureau of Revenue Collection, said it would take up to six months to study the feasibility of the project.
Among the issues the department wants to examine is whether the machines would work with existing computer systems and whether the city would face liability for any security problems at the kiosks. A letter Raymond submitted to the council also questions whether many of those who now use walk-in services, such as senior citizens, would feel comfortable with the new technology.
Marc Meisel, chief executive officer of Pay-Ease, the company that installed the machines in Chicago, said apart from saving time and being convenient, the machines would increase accountability through an audit trail.
At yesterday's City Council hearing, he displayed a model of the machines that accepts transactions in cash, checks, credit cards or debit cards.
"Pay-Ease ... reduces costs and generates a new revenue stream while promoting customer convenience," he said.
The machines use touch-screen monitors that prompt users through a menu of selections. Though the city is considering using them for parking, water and sewer bills, they are also capable of handling common government tasks such as renewing car registrations and driver's licenses, producing driver history reports and selling parking permits.