Get Bob Cratchitt to Do It

The Town of South Attleboro, MA sent out wildly threatening past due letters for folks with balances as low as 1-cent  (thereby investing at least 42 cents to get one back).  In response to charges that this was stupid, City Collector Debora Marcoccio responded:

A computer automatically printed the letters for any account with a balance remaining, and they were not reviewed by staff before being sent out, Marcoccio said.

"It would be fiscally irresponsible for me to have staff weed through the bills and pull out any below a certain amount," Marcoccio said. " And what would that amount be?"

What, are we living in the 19th century with clerks in a musty room preparing bills by hand?  This fix probably requires one whole entire line of program code in the billing system to fix.  I could probably teach myself to code whatever language the payroll system is written in (my guess is COBOL, which, god help me, I already know) in less time than this woman has spent fielding complaints and media inquiries.  Compare this to what TJIC has to do just to get the mail out.

And don't you love people who don't even have enough spine to make a simple decision about the cutoff for minimum bill size.  I have found this is one of those things the government is really, really bad at -- making decisions under uncertainty  (which covers about all decisions, except routine ones embodied in SOP).  Government has no incentives, in general, for productivity, or production, or customer satisfaction.  The only time government employees get feedback at all is when they get negative feedback from having someone yell at them for making a decision that some higher-up didn't like..  So if a decision is not justifiable either by past precedent/SOP or explicitly by the rules, it is not made.

By the way, I had a personal programming milestone last night.  I finally built a website without using a WYSIWIG editor that formatted the way I wanted it to all in CSS without a single table.  I predict that now that I have finally gotten a decent handle on CSS, which mainly consists of learning all the workarounds for when it doesn't work as you would expect, that someone is about to introduce a whole new system for formatting web pages.

  • James

    Yeah, but if we let them take over healthcare and Wall Street, bureaucrats will certainly be able to handle that without issue.

  • ErikTheRed

    I can top that - I once got a refund check from Pac Bell for $.01. I really need to dig that up and scan it...

  • Rick C

    It's worse than that--the city collector dug in heels and said that the bill wouldn't be cancelled.

    In the meantime, the city is holding firm on the amount due.

    Marcoccio, who called the whole situation "ridiculous," said the city will not waive the balance.

    "If there's a bill, it must be paid," she said.

  • http://jimfureypresents.com Jim

    I get a good laugh once a month when I receive one of my credit card statements (in the mail mind you since the credit union won't go paperless) that for 3+ years now has had a running balance of minus 10 cents. I suppose they keep hoping that I'll spend the 10 cents, but I prefer to let them keep spending money on me every month.

  • Brian

    "And what would that amount be?"

    Not to give them too much credit, but I bet even a government accountant could figure this one out.

    - cost of producing the bill (paper, ink, depreciating machinery)
    - cost of delivering the bill (envelope, postage, delivery to Post Office)

    And then your code would be something along the lines of:

    If (amount to produce and deliver bill) > (Amount owed)
    Move to next bill

    This does not seem overly complicated. In fact, I can think of at least 5000 businesses that do exactly this sort of thing on a daily basis. They have to, because if they spend more than make they go out of business. I suppose it's a good thing Ms. Marcoccio doesn't have to worry about silly little things like profitability. She'd have a tough time getting hired on at a real business.

  • Charlie B

    "She'd have a tough time getting hired on at a real business."

    The decision probably isn't hers to make. The town council, which she was wish enough not to throw under the bus, is solely responsible for the financial rules.

    It wouldn't surprise me to learn that their is a town ordinance or state statute prohibiting debt forgiveness without a resolution passed by the council.

  • Thinking man

    Well we did fight two land wars during 41 and 43 watch and war does tend to be expensive but not so much as surrender.

  • http://kronometric.org xpatUSA

    "I finally built a website without using a WYSIWIG editor that formatted the way I wanted it to all in CSS without a single table. I predict that now that I have finally gotten a decent handle on CSS, which mainly consists of learning all the workarounds for when it doesn't work as you would expect, that someone is about to introduce a whole new system for formatting web pages."

    Well done! CSS2 and html 4.01 transitional does it for most folks. Unfortunately, xhtml is getting a little too popular and CSS3 is already here, sad to say.

    Some WYSIWIG editors are bloody awful! Yahoo's Sitebuilder used to produce enormous tables but lately has become much more intelligent. About the best on the planet lately is Google's Blogspot and their on-line Document system.

    Keep up the good work,

    T.C.

  • rxc

    The mantra in govt is that "process is your friend", because once you establish the process, after giving all of the interested stakeholders a chance to provide their input, none of them can come after you for being arbitrary and capricious. So, govt organizations spend much more time trying to set up processes to deal with the work that they expect to get, rather than having to make ad-hoc decisions for each case.

    Ad-hoc decisions are hell, because they get second-guessed by stakeholders and media, relied on as precedents for completely non-related matters, and the govt gets sued. This official needs to go thru a rulemaking to set a limit on the amounts that she will consider trivial. Should only take a year or two... Unless some politician decides to get involved and "help her out"