As technology evolves, so are the options municipalities are providing to constituents to pay costs from utilities to parking tickets. Payment options are no longer limited to cash and check. Payees are now able to access bills and fees online or via their mobile devices. Municipalities across the country have begun to turn to these solutions, even upgrading to high-tech parking payment solutions, too.
Online Payment Solutions
With Xpress-pay.com, Systems East Inc. has been in the municipal payment solution market since 1982 and has noticed the demand for such services grow over time. Their product allows constituents to simply visit a website, select their state, the organization or city department they are paying and their bill type before reaching the criteria screen. Matching bills can then be added to a person’s cart with payments and payments can be made by credit card, debit card or electronic check. All constituents need is access to a PC, Mac, telephone or mobile device. Xpress-pay then alerts the municipality that a payment has been made without the municipality ever seeing the payee’s credit card number, protecting them from liability.
“As we’ve had more (municipal) enrollments, we get more enrollments from the public,” said Systems East Inc. President James Buttino, noting that when the public sees the online option, they are inclined to use it as a convenient means to pay bills or fines.
Online payment options for municipal services means not only convenience for the customer, but also a reduction in the amount of time municipal employees have to spend with in-person customers or processing checks.
Beyond convenience for constituents, Buttino said, “One of the biggest advantages is cost avoidance.” Enrollment costs cities nothing, and they can include as many departments to list on the site as they want. Municipalities simply need an Internet connection to visit the website and get started. Credit card usage costs are defrayed with payees paying a site fee for the convenience. Online payment solutions also provide labor savings, though different online payment solutions vary with the options they provide. When checks come in through the mail, office staff need to open envelopes and process the checks before taking them to the bank. Cash payments that are brought in also take up time at the counter. With Xpress-pay, clerks simply have to upload files containing unpaid bills to the site for the payee to find. Payments can also be set up by payees who input all the data into the Xpress-pay website instead; Xpress-pay then alerts the municipality to the payment and its type, whether it is for utilities or taxes.
Another benefit for online payments is the Internet’s 24-7 availability, which comes in handy for those who pay bills at the last second. Bills and fines can also be paid by telephone and by mobile device, options available through Xpress-pay. In fact, mobile devices are the only method for payment where Xpress-pay stores the payee’s information but only if the payee selects that option.
Such programs are available to municipalities no matter their size with Buttino providing examples of two of their clients: Syracuse, N.Y., and the larger Nassau County, N.Y. “From smallest to largest, we have a totally flexible solution,” said Buttino. “They (municipalities) can do this — they can participate with credit card or debit and electronic check payments.”
Within the online payment services industry, security is especially tough with credit card companies like VISA policing products like Xpress-pay to make sure they remain PCI compliant. “Security is amazing — the industry is very effective at self-policing,” said Buttino.
Xpress-pay has to use an approved third party to conduct penetration testing. “We are constantly assaulted (by the third party),” said Buttino. “If they find a vulnerability, we have to fix it within two weeks.” Security is verified and assessed on a month-to-month basis to remain PCI compliant. “We have to be PCI compliant before we can even participate on the network,” Buttino adds. Their compliance certificate is then renewed every three months.
Smart Parking Kiosks
Several cities are bringing their parking systems into the 21st century, including Ferndale, Mich., which is currently in the process of installing 19 solar-powered kiosks, starting first with parking lots before turning to on-street parking. Cristina Sheppard-Decius, executive director of the Downtown Development Authority, explained the switch from their old parking meters has been a means to help grow their parking system. The switch also offers several benefits not only for Ferndale but for the public as well in the way of convenience and alerting to community events within the city through the kiosks’ welcome screens.
Ferndale is numbering every parking space in sequential order to make the switch quickly after the kiosks are installed. End-users will then use these numbers to indicate their parking space to the kiosk. Placements of the kiosks were based on the flow of traffic; Sheppard-Decius noted Ferndale spent quite some time on determining the best locations. Beyond providing “green” and sustainable energy, the solar-powered aspect of the kiosks also helped with placement decisions since they did not have to worry about moving electricity to them, providing cost savings.
“We’ve been looking at it for awhile,” said Sheppard-Decius. “Our other system was old and needed attention.”
“For the end-user, it is more convenient,” said Sheppard-Decius. “Rather than just using coins, they will be able to use coins, dollar bills and credit and debit cards. Also with credit, they will be able to input their cellphone numbers to be notified when their time is about to expire.” Another convenience for the end-user is they do not have to walk to the original kiosk where they paid in order to add time.
Ferndale gets a level of security the previous meters lacked with the new kiosks having one unique key to open them, in addition to alerting when tampered with or if there is a maintenance need. “They talk to you and tell you what they need,” Sheppard-Decius said. Money is also kept in a separate compartment from the mechanical components, preventing theft during repair situations. When money is collected, the entire money unit is removed and replaced with an empty unit. The collector is unable to open the locked unit, which is counted by the Federal Reserve, eliminating possible theft.
“We are going from 900 meters, we have to collect from, to 19,” said Sheppard-Decius, noting this decrease will allow for time savings across the departments involved in their parking system. Enforcers will also be able to do their job quicker by using handheld devices or the kiosks to see parking violations.
The new system allows for easy access to reports, which can be viewed online or printed out from the individual kiosks. Through these reports, Sheppard-Decius noted they will be able to look at habits, such as when people come more often, and adjust rates accordingly. “We can change the rates by computer,” said Sheppard-Decius, noting it saves time from having to go to each meter individually. They can then make changes to rates whenever needed, even using flat rates on weekends while still using hourly rates during the week.
While some end-users may complain about new kiosks and rates changing, Sheppard-Decius explained, “Reality is either the end-user or the property owner, either through taxes or assessments, pays. If it is the property owners, it (the cost) then passes on to businesses who pass it down to the end-user.”
Entering a cell phone number into some new, smart parking kiosks will get the user a call or text warning saying that their meter time is about to expire.
“It’s a large project, we are changing the whole habit of the system, a complete makeover from locations to signage,” Sheppard-Decius said.
Sheppard-Decius expects they will make up their investment within a year and a half’s time once the kiosks are in use. “I was originally hoping (they would be up) during the holidays,” said Sheppard-Decius. “It was a much bigger job than we had originally outlined.” She noted a new state rule in regards to reporting is one of the hold-ups with the city now waiting to see if they can still use their current enforcement company.
Sheppard-Decius highly recommends other municipalities fully research their options in addition to learning their existing parking system inside and out. She noted there also has to be understanding for such as shift within all the departments involved. Sheppard-Decius stated it usually take nine months to implement the change, including research, planning, getting bids and working with the company that is chosen.
Ferndale went with Digital Payment Technologies but Sheppard- Decius stated, “There are other providers out there — it was just the choice we went with, wanting to streamline our system.”