Texas county e-filing takes off

When Paul Bettencourt became the Harris County tax assessor-collector in November 1998, the Texas county's residents — more than 3 million people — still hadn't received their property tax bills for the year.

The reason? Not enough envelopes.

The office had one antiquated mainframe computer, and all payments were made by cash or check — the practice for more than a century.

This year, the newly computerized tax office (www.tax.co.harris.tx.us), which collects for 44 taxing jurisdictions including the city of Houston, mailed 800,000 tax bills on time and is accepting credit card payments online. Taxpayers can also view their bills online — for real estate, personal property, mobile homes and mineral account taxes — and pay with American Express, Discover or MasterCard. An extra 2.4 percent credit card transaction fee is tacked onto a bill, and credit card information is not kept on file.

As long as the user's computer supports Netscape Communications Corp.'s Navigator 4.08, Communicator 4.74 or Microsoft Corp.'s Internet Explorer 5.0, taxpayers can pay from any location.

Bettencourt said online payments are faster and more accurate, and the system is more convenient for taxpayers. He said the $20,000 cost of developing the payment option would be offset by increased administrative efficiency.

In January, when the office first posted bills online, the call volume dropped from 10,000 to 8,000 a day. He estimated that the online payment option would further reduce calls to 6,000 a day, and the office would use fewer temporary workers.

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