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Kathy Smith spent most of an hour chatting online with a bankrupt silver duck.

In fact, she spends most work days in the Pulaski County tax collector's office swapping messages with silver ducks, pink penguins and the occasional orange jellyfish.

Colors, animals and inanimate objects make up the screen names assigned to anyone who uses the office's live chat service. The program debuted a week before Oct. 16, this year's tax payment deadline.

On the county treasurer's home page, in the bottom left corner, is a red, circular button. Click it and a chat window pops up that resembles Facebook messenger.

On the receiving end is an agent in Debra Buckner's office. Buckner is Pulaski County's treasurer and the tax collector.

Chat users type in their tax-related queries and county officials, like Smith, a community liaison, answer them. It's available 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, although people can leave messages at any hour.

The live chat is "something that's personal but efficient," said Bentley Hovis, chief deputy treasurer. As of Tuesday, the office had overseen 464 conversations.

Buckner's office decided to give live chat a try this summer, but its first attempt kept crashing the website, Hovis said. So the office contacted the Information Network of Arkansas, an organization that helps improve state and local entities' online services.

The group oversaw the June debut of the new website, complete with a chat service of its own, said Bob Sanders, the general manager.

More states are experimenting with live chat to offer simple communication for those who prefer typing over dialing, Sanders said. Plus, a conversation on the Internet can be paused whenever, he added. The state's live chat allows users to continue talking on the site through email or through text messaging.

The network allowed Pulaski County to act as a "guinea pig" and test the chat software for free, Hovis said.

As far as guinea pigs go, Pulaski County is a large one. This year, the collector's office sent out 376,265 tax bills to take in about $488 million, Hovis said. As of Tuesday, 89,808 accounts are delinquent, owing about $31.4 million.

A lot of questions users ask are related to delinquency, Smith said. Some are simple, like where to mail a payment, she said. Others are more complex, from someone who has declared bankruptcy and is unsure of the next move.

Smith gets some basic information -- a name, phone number and address. On a dual screen, she can pull up the person's publicly available information to explain deadlines, payment plans and any unfamiliar jargon.

People often ask where their tax money is going. Smith said she explains where each penny is spent.

For other common questions, the online portal has programmed responses. With one click, Smith can insert an already typed-out answer to the query, "Why do I pay school taxes?"

Smith also can correspond in emojis. One programmed response -- "Mrs. Buckner says, thank you for paying your taxes!" -- is punctuated by a yellow smiley face.

With the live chat, the county meets people where they are, Hovis said. Plus, with certain questions, people "might be embarrassed to call, or something," Smith said.

One user typed an expletive after learning his taxes changed because of a recent divorce. Another person asked Smith if he was going to jail.

"Not based on our conversation," Smith told him. "I don't know what you've done tonight, buddy, but you're OK with us," she joked.

After analyzing data from Pulaski County, the Information Network of Arkansas can decide how to use the technology with other sites, Sanders said.

The state Game and Fish Commission website could be an ideal live-chat candidate, as hunters have all sorts of basic rules and dates they ask about, Sanders said.

In the pursuit of efficient government, "machine learning" could be a new frontier, he said.

With the state chat service, users are first connected to a chat "bot," or automated response program, before being connected to a human. Perhaps in the future, that bot will study its human tutor and "become more confident to answer that question on its own," Sanders said.

Right now, Pulaski County is still collecting data on when and why people use the virtual dialogue.

In the days before the tax payment deadline, the office oversaw 55 to 65 chats a day, with four employees monitoring the program, Hovis said. The day before taxes were due, it spiked to more than 100 chats, he said.

When the deadline passed, that number tapered off to about 10 a day, with two agents answering questions, he said.

Because 2017 was the first countywide property reappraisal year since 2012, Hovis and Smith expect the live chat will see a deluge of users around March, when those adjustments are reflected in 2018 tax bills.

"It's going to be smoking," Smith said.

The system generates color-coded screen names to keep track of each user. Smith said she thought the names were a little silly at first, until the payment deadline neared.

County agents would have seven or eight chats going at once, Hovis said, indicative of the demand to come.

Smith said she would have to remind herself, "OK. It was a pink penguin I was talking to. Not a silver duck."

Metro on 11/05/2017

Print Headline: County office up for live chats

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