Wednesday, April 16, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

How to pay the city can be a guessing game

HOW MUCH does Philadelphia want your money? Not enough to make it easy to pay for city services, apparently.

"It's Our Money," a partnership between the Daily News and WHYY that's funded by the William Penn Foundation, has found that, two years after Mayor Nutter took office promising to make city government more customer- friendly, many city departments still don't accept credit cards for in-person transactions, and two satellite payment facilities in North Philly and the Northeast don't accept cash.

What's more, because every department is responsible for managing its own payment-collection system, figuring out how to pay for services can be extremely confusing.

The good news is that the Nutter administration is focusing on revamping the city's Web site to streamline online transactions.

This is an advantage of both convenience — in an increasingly cash-free society, a lot of people are accustomed to paying for things with a credit or debit card — and economics. Poorer Philadelphians without bank accounts incur fees if they're forced to pay in anything but cash.

Enter the labyrinth

"It's Our Money" called a cross-section of city departments to find out what forms of payment they accept for crucial services, from paying taxes and your gas bill to posting bail (we also called a couple of state departments and the First Judicial District, because they provide services Philadelphians use frequently, though it should be noted that the city can't control their practices).

Our findings are in the chart below.


A few agencies, such as the Department of Health and the Philadelphia Gas Works, accept all possible forms of payment. But some don't. Here are some of the limitations, and the explanations we got when we asked the departments why:

  • The Department of Records accepts credit cards online but not in person. Commissioner Joan Decker says she believes that the city used to have a rule against accepting credit-card payments in person because of the processing fees involved. Mayoral spokeswoman Maura Kennedy said that no such rule existed.
     
  • The Finance Department, which handles payments relating to code violations, fire-alarm violations and fire-alarm registrations, doesn't accept credit cards at all. The department plans to roll out an online credit-card payment system early this year, and Eileen O'Brien, of the Finance Department, said that officials are considering enabling department cashiers to accept credit-card payments in person as well.
     
  • Gregory Jacovini, at the Register of Wills, said the office doesn't accept checks or credit-card payments for marriage licenses because people have tried to stop payments for the licenses after they've gotten them, and the Register of Wills can't take away a marriage license once it's issued.
     
  • Cashiers in the Municipal Services Building concourse (run by the Managing Director's Office) accept payment for everything from tax bills to building permits, but you can't pay with a credit card. Mayoral spokeswoman Kennedy blamed the "up-front costs" of setting up a credit-card payment system for the time it's taking to bring the concourse into the digital age. The city still doesn't have a rollout date for accepting credit cards.
     
  • Two satellite payment centers that handle water bills and tax payments for the Revenue Department don't accept cash. Water Revenue Bureau spokesman Robert DePiano said that the offices, run by the Managing Director's Office, take only checks and money orders because of "the added costs involved" in processing cash and credit-card payments, and in installing precautionary tools like safes and security cameras.
     
  • The Parking Authority — a majority of whose board is appointed by the governor — doesn't accept checks from people trying to get vehicles out of impoundment. Spokeswoman Linda Miller said that the authority is afraid that people will either bounce or stop payment on checks after getting their cars back.
     
  • At the state level, PennDOT spokeswoman Danielle Klinger explained that driver's-license centers don't accept cash or credit cards because they "don't have the infrastructure in place," and that accepting credit cards would mean extra cost in the form of processing fees.

    On top of all this, Philly's online payment system could be a lot better: Although San Francisco allows residents to pay for 13 municipal services through one Web site, individual Philadelphia departments are responsible for managing their own electronic payments, a situation that chief technology officer Allan Frank called "sad."

    How does this hurt the consumer? Well, the Department of Revenue allows residents to pay taxes online, but for most, you have to use Internet Explorer. Other popular browsers, like Firefox and Safari, won't work.

    Problems like that should be resolved in the next month or so, when the city implements a uniform e-payment system, Frank said. Once that's done, work will begin on standardizing city Web sites, to make it easier for users to find where to pay.

    The administration has no plans, however, to change the practice of making each department responsible for collecting its own in-person payments, according to Cathy Paster, first deputy director of finance.

    We are not alone

    Philly's decentralized approach to payment collection is shared by several other large cities: New York, Baltimore and Boston also leave it to individual departments to decide what forms of payment to accept.

    For example, Baltimore's Department of Recreation and Parks accepts only money orders for permits because "they don't want folks handling cash," according to Helene Grady, of that city's finance department.

    Each department makes "a judgment call," she said.

    Paster isn't sure how the system came to be in Philly. Each department keeps track of its own revenue, but the Revenue Department collects the information as well. Consequently, a uniform citywide payment policy is "certainly something we could look at," she said. *

    Anthony Campisi reports for "It's Our Money" — www.ourmoney philly.com.
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  • ANTHONY CAMPISI campisi.anthony@gmail.com 215-854-5307
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