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News : Cuyahoga County's Call Center ‘Overwhelmed' During Tax Season
Cleveland, Ohio -- Thousands of residents with questions about their tax bills overwhelmed Cuyahoga County’s new and understaffed call center in January, resulting in callers waiting on hold, on average, for more than 12 minutes, and callers hanging up without talking to anyone more than half the time, recently released records show.
Taxpayers who showed up at the county's fiscal office in the days leading up to the Jan. 23 deadline for paying property taxes also encountered waits in sometimes bitter cold temperatures as lines snaked outside the Carnegie Avenue building, according to county council members and council staff.
County council members said the call center, which County Executive Ed FitzGerald's administration launched last June, didn't help with customer service problems that often arise leading up to the Jan. 23 tax deadline.
"The reason we got a new form of government was to improve services to the community and the constituents, and it doesn’t look like there was an improvement here," Council President C. Ellen Connally said Friday.
Interim Fiscal Officer Mark Parks oversees the call center, a central phone bank for all county services that was created with the intent of helping taxpayers better navigate the county government. The release of hundreds of thousands of property tax bills in late December presented the center with its first major test.
The center received about 17,000 phone calls between Dec. 23, the week most tax bills were released, and Jan. 9, Parks told county council during a committee hearing on Jan. 23. During that time, four staffers were answering the phones, Parks said.
Rich Luchette, a FitzGerald spokesman, later clarified there were eventually seven employees answering phones at the call center in early January -- an extra operator who was hired in January, a supervisor and an assistant.*
Parks said county officials thought the employees at the call center, plus employees in the county fiscal office, would be able to handle the volume of calls.
But they were wrong, and they soon heard about it from the public. Parks temporarily transferred three additional employees to the call center in response to the furor, bringing the number of employees answering phones to ten.
"The system was overwhelmed, and as soon as we found out, we corrected the problem," Parks said.
Connally, who was unable to attend the January committee hearing, said Friday that she thinks the problems in the tax office are a byproduct of FitzGerald’s zeal to slash the county payroll and save taxpayer money.
"I understand. That’s a very legitimate concern and a lot of staff reduction had to happen... But I think sometimes, with all due respect to them [the FitzGerald administration], they view things on paper and they don’t look at the practical side of things," she said.
"There's no basis for that," said Luchette, the FitzGerald spokesman. "This was the first year of having the call center."
County officials also said the line at the tax office only backed up out the door one day. The last three days, they sent employees out to collect bills from people waiting in line. Residents also had the option to leave their bills in a dropbox, mail them in, pay them online or over the phone.
The FitzGerald administration began tracking customer service data so they could better diagnose and respond to problems like the ones that arose during tax season, Luchette said.
"It fits into Ed's [philosophy] of measuring data, and using it in ways to find out where you're successful, and where you can improve," Luchette said.
A review of that data, obtained through a public records request, paints a frustrating picture.
During January, more than half of the 28,353 phone calls that came in to the county’s call center disconnected before speaking to anyone.
To put that in perspective, that’s more disconnected calls than June 2013 through December 2013 combined.
January callers who stayed on the phone spent an average of more than 12 minutes on hold — compared to an average hold time between June and November of 55 seconds.
The week beginning Jan. 5 proved the worst, with the average hold time increasing to nearly 15 minutes. More than 61 percent of all phone calls disconnected without talking to anyone, according to county records.
The second week of January, the average hold time dropped to 11 minutes and 45 seconds, and plateaued for the rest of the month at just under 11 minutes.
February data was not immediately available, although the call volume has dropped now that tax season is over.
Phone frustrations weren’t the only problem besetting Parks’ fiscal office last tax season. Roughly 108,000 tax bills – or about one-quarter of the total county bill volume – missed a county-imposed deadline in December.
The flub didn’t make the bills late under legal definitions, but it made it harder for county residents accustomed to deducting their property tax payments on their 2013 federal tax filings.
Parks attributed the late mailing to issues with a third-party vendor. Following the Jan. 23 committee hearing, county council members chided Parks for throwing the vendor, Midwest Direct, "under the bus."
FitzGerald has nominated Parks, who has been interim fiscal officer since September, to permanently hold the fiscal officer job, which combines elements of the former county auditor and recorder elected position.
Parks, who must receive yes votes from six of council’s 11 members to be confirmed, will likely hear from council about the issues with the call center and tax bills at a confirmation hearing later this month.
Posted by Veronica Silva Cusi, news correspondent
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About Cuyahoga County:
Cuyahoga County is a county located in the state of Ohio, United States. It is the most populous county in Ohio; according to the 2010 census, it has a population of 1,280,122 which is a decrease of 8.2% from 1,393,978 in 2000. Its county seat is Cleveland. Cuyahoga County is part of Greater Cleveland, a metropolitan area, and Northeast Ohio, a thirteen-county region, joined together in economic development initiatives. The county is named after the Iroquoian word Cuyahoga, which means 'crooked river'. The name is also assigned to the Cuyahoga River, which bisects the county. Former U.S. President James A. Garfield was born in what was Cuyahoga County's Orange Township.
Published: Thursday, February 20, 2014