Syra­cuse cashes in on hand­writ­ten tax notes

Orlando Sentinel (Sunday) - - PEOPLE & ARTS - By David Klep­per

AL­BANY, N.Y. — A city in New York state has found a novel way of mo­ti­vat­ing res­i­dents to pay their back taxes: per­sonal notes hand­writ­ten by city of­fi­cials.

The idea stemmed from an ex­per­i­ment on late-tax pay­ments, in which the city of Syra­cuse part­nered with re­searchers at Syra­cuse Univer­sity. City of­fi­cials wrote and signed thou­sands of notes by hand, rather than send­ing stan­dard le­gal let­ters de­mand­ing pay­ment.

The re­sult was the city col­lect­ing nearly $1.5 mil­lion more than it pre­dicted tra­di­tional meth­ods alone would have brought in. Univer­sity re­searchers es­ti­mate that the per­sonal ap­proach brought in 57 per­cent more rev­enue from delin­quent prop­erty own­ers than the city could ex­pect from us­ing more tra­di­tional let­ters.

The notes took a less threat­en­ing ap­proach, fo­cus­ing on steps the res­i­dent could take to avoid late penal­ties or le­gal ac­tion. In­stead of be­ing ad­dressed “dear prop­erty owner,” the notes were all per­son­ally ad­dressed to the res­i­dent. Each had a brief, hand­writ­ten mes­sage on the out­side of the en­ve­lope as well, re­searchers said.

“It’s the kind of pos­i­tive out­come that oc­curs when you aren’t afraid to try some­thing new,” Syra­cuse Mayor Ben Walsh said.

Col­lect­ing late taxes is a chal­lenge for cities, which of­ten use com­puter-gen­er­ated let­ters to res­i­dents threat­en­ing ac­tion if the money isn’t paid. The re­searchers said the ex­per­i­ment could have broad ap­pli­ca­tions to a num­ber of gov­ern­ment ser­vices.

“These are small, sim­ple changes that can have huge pay­offs,” said Leonard Lopoo, a Syra­cuse pro­fes­sor and di­rec­tor and co-founder of Maxwell X Lab, a be­hav­ioral re­search cen­ter at Syra­cuse Univer­sity’s Maxwell School.

The lab’s manag­ing di­rec­tor, Joe Boskovski, said treat­ing peo­ple as hu­mans can yield results.

MIKE GROLL/AP 2015

Syra­cuse, N.Y., has found a novel way of get­ting res­i­dents to pay their back taxes: per­sonal notes from city of­fi­cials.

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