Title: Technology For All, No Really

Amazon opens a grocery store where you do not need to check out. Banks let you transfer money to your friends via your cell phone. You use an app to track everything from your health, to your child’s grades, to the news from around the world. Yet, in the tax service business, we still use fax machines.

So, why hasn’t the tax service industry kept pace with technological development? It’s a simple question with a multitude of complex answers. The foremost reason is the sheer variation from collecting agency to collecting agency across the country. Variations on how the data is consumed play a role as well. Add to that the fact that property tax collection, generally governed by state law, must work within the framework of lending laws, where federal legislation and oversight play a key role.

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In states such as Pennsylvania and New York where taxes are collected at the local level, lack of standardized data collection practices is a big hurdle. Smaller collectors prefer doing things the old-fashioned way with paper bills, single checks for each payment and often fulfilling requests for information through phone contact and yes, sometimes a facsimile. The requirements for how tax information must be requested vary by method, frequency, authorization, timing and cost. For some agencies, when the request for tax payment is scheduled, the data is provided either through an automated email or tax roll at no charge, and the process can be completely automated through file exchange. In other jurisdictions, a requester is only able to supply a list of properties they service as opposed to receiving a full file of the tax roll. Having access to the full tax roll permits the tax service provider to provide data to clients on properties added throughout the tax cycle. Some of these requirements vary due to local practices and some are governed by state or local statute.

The requester only has access to the specific parcels the company intends to pay as opposed to receiving a full file of the tax roll. Some of these requirements vary due to local practices and some are governed by state or local statute.

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The availability of tax billing data via file exchange for the procurement of property tax data needed for payment continues to increase across the country. The cost of data storage, at one time a major barrier for agencies and tax service providers, has decreased at a rapid rate. This builds the foundation for the further use of automation to disseminate tax payment information.

As more and more collecting agencies open their files, industry players must use technology with the ability to receive data in a multitude of formats. That data needs to be stored and be accessible in order to customize output as needed to meet lender requirements satisfying their processes for compliant payment and remittance.

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Despite all the variations, there are new ways to maximize the use of automation to reduce errors and improve availability. First, it is necessary to build the foundation to automate the steps traditionally used by tax service providers to report tax information. Technology available today can mimic those steps once the data is available to remove the elements of manual data entry and the accompanying delivery of reporting. The implementation of optical character recognition technology may help convert the information that is still received by paper to electronic data.

The second and perhaps more challenging step is increasing the availability of data from the agencies. The industry must step up ways to address the remaining agencies that operate using 20th century practices. Some strategies that should be aggressively pursued include: 1.) lobbying more to remove legislative barriers to providing data to service providers, 2.) increasing direct partnerships with the collecting agencies to find solutions toward automation that benefit the collector and the payer, and 3.) establishing strategic alliances with data providers that service the collecting agencies. By building alliances with third-party providers that already have access to the data, the tax service industry can increase electronic data availability without burden to the collectors. Taking these steps may someday help the industry bid adieu to that dusty old fax machine.

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