Paying property taxes is probably one of the least favorite activities many residents partake in each year, but it has to be done. In Comal County, this chore is now a little less painful. Taxpayers simply scan a unique pixilated image — a QR code — with their smartphone to quickly pay their bill online.
Though QR codes have been around for a long time — they were first designed in 1994 to help with the car manufacturing process — their functionality is just now reaching the masses with the help of free smartphone applications. Businesses, nonprofits, magazine publishers and public service providers are using QR codes more and more on retail products, business cards, signs, advertisements, public transit stations and other fast-paced messaging mediums to direct smartphone users to targeted websites such as specific product reviews on Yelp, online donation drives and bus schedules.
County tax assessor-collectors have jumped on the QR code wagon as well, placing the barcodes on tax statements. Generally, the barcodes have lead to general county websites and have required users to navigate through other links before they can gain access to their own information. But the Comal County tax office went a step further. It became the first in the country to generate a unique QR code for each one of its property taxpayers and place it on their printed tax statements, allowing each property owner in the county direct access to their own personal tax records — no logins or passwords required.
“With counties growing as much as we all are, especially here in Comal County, and with us now having less staff and less positions in our tax office than we used to have, we knew we had to do something very efficient that would serve the taxpayer,” said Comal County Tax Assessor-Collector Cathy Talcott. “We just really believe that, whatever is out there, we owe it to the taxpayer to at least look into it, and if it’s something that would work well for them, then we are obligated to use it, especially if it will save money.”
The idea to place QR codes on tax statements wasn’t Talcott’s; a vendor designing a new website for the office first suggested the simpler one-code-fits-all method already being used by other tax assessor-collectors.
“I thought, well we would be lucky if we could get that done in the next five or ten years, that’s a really good thing to shoot for in the future,” Talcott said.
But instead of putting the idea on the back-burner, she mentioned it to her staff, who loved it so much that they ran with it.
“We had wanted to put it (a QR code) on our business cards and decided to go ahead and take it a step further,” said Comal County Tax Office Chief Deputy Sharon Carlson. “We thought it would be a great idea for customers to be able to pay from anywhere.”
The county commissioners court also thought it was a great idea and supported the plan. The staff wanted to make the process as quick and efficient as possible for taxpayers, and they knew that residents might be deterred from using the QR code if they still had to navigate through other links and log in to a secure server using their smartphones. So the office asked its printing vendor if they could bypass that by creating a unique code for each taxpayer.
“It kind of overwhelmed everybody at first. … I got told, ‘I don’t think we can do this, it’s never been done before,’” Carlson said. “But it was something we really wanted to do and we were lucky that our vendor was willing to go out on a limb and try something new.”
Working with the tax office and the county information technology department, it took vendors nine months to achieve their goal of creating 110,000 unique QR codes and linking them directly with the office’s software to ensure that the information viewed by the mobile users was accurate and included any penalties, interest and accrued fees. The office wanted to test the viability of its idea prior to its busy season in December and January and decided to do a test run in April 2012.
“We mainly wanted to make sure that the balances were correct for everyone’s tax statements, because once penalties and interest kicks in … every account is very different and we wanted to make sure that the system was calculating everything correctly,” Talcott said. “They were able to work with us very carefully, even to the penny, so that everything matches up as it should.”
There weren’t many kinks, Talcott said, so the county was able to implement the QR codes for the 2012 tax statements. Talcott took the news to the tax office’s Facebook page and spread the word through the local newspaper and radio stations.
Property taxes aren’t due until Jan. 31, but by Dec. 31, the county had collected $35,000 in property taxes via the new QR code technology, and Talcott said she expects that figure to increase each tax season.
“Every year, more and more people will be using iPhones and mobile devices and so I foresee that, in the future, this will be one of the only ways that most people will be paying,” she said, adding that feedback from residents was positive. Residents living abroad, such as active duty military members, especially liked the ease with which they could access their tax records and print out previous years’ statements. “It’s so much more convenient for the taxpayer. They don’t have to come into the tax office unless they want to, they don’t have to write a check unless they want to and they can pay from anywhere in the world.”
The QR code technology helped the tax office to run efficiently all through the tax season and kept the office from having to hire an additional staff member — something that would have cost three or four times more than the QR codes themselves, Talcott said.
“Our clerks who are at the counter have much more free time now to be able to visit with those who come in personally to pay their taxes or who have questions,” she said.
Thanks to the office’s innovative use of the QR codes, a lot of eyes are on Comal County. The office earned a 2013 County Best Practices Award from the Texas Association of Counties Leadership Program and has presented its innovation at the National Association of Counties 2013 County Marketplace and Solutions Conference in Tarrant County in July, as well as other venues.
“We were told that the country of Brazil is even watching Comal County because their government is considering putting a QR code on their statements,” Talcott said. “I’m pretty certain that by this time next year, we won’t be the only ones doing it.”
Talcott said she’s been so impressed with the accuracy and efficiency of the QR codes that she’s hoping to eventually work with the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles to implement the QR code technology for use with motor vehicle registrations — though that may take some time still.
“We’ve put the bug in their ear,” she said. ✯