SOMERSET – Far from the hustle and bustle of city life, the 2,800 residents of rural Somerset are being encouraged to become savvy navigators of the information highway and consumers of improving technology.
In an effort to streamline the way the town delivers services while still maintaining the high levels of service that residents have come to expect, town officials hope residents might turn to their home computers, as well as take advantage of other advances in technology.
Supervisor Daniel M. Engert believes his town’s latest actions are a harbinger of things to come in Niagara County by offering residents the opportunity to use automatic debit withdrawal to pay water and sewer bills.
“This is nothing new in the service industry – people have used this to pay other bills, like their cable or utility bills, for some time now,” said Engert. “Now it’s in place here.”
Town Clerk Tracy Carmer said about 100 residents have expressed a willingness to try it. Bills went out Jan. 10 and are due Feb. 10.
Dale Howard, who has lived in the town for a decade, said he was told by town officials that he was the first to sign on. He said he uses the same service to pay other household bills.
“When this is available, we try and use it,” he said. “It’s a convenience. In the past, I’d drive past Town Hall and run in and pay the bills.
“I think this is great – but that’s my personal feeling and it’s a personal choice,” he added. “The people at Town Hall are always there to guide you. They are friendly, knowledgeable and always trying to improve the town.”
Carmer pointed out that, “Residents will still receive their bills in the mail, so we will still have that communication, but this is a more convenient way for residents to pay the bills.”
Carmer has served as clerk of the Water and Sewer Department since 2008 and brought those duties with her when she became the new town clerk on Jan. 1, another way the town is trying to save money, said Engert.
“Personnel costs are usually the most significant part of a business, so when we’re trying to deliver services, we look for creative ways to help reduce our personnel footprint,” Engert said. “Tracy was willing to take on this added responsibility for the benefit of the town.”
Carmer was given a $4,000 stipend for the expanded duties, compared with the cost of hiring another full-time clerk, Engert said. She was not replaced in the Water and Sewer Department, and the longtime superintendent of that department, Melvin Denny, was asked to take on more duties, Engert said.
A move in recent years to an updated water meter reading system smoothed the way to do more with less, Engert said.
In addition, when longtime Water Department lab director Douglas Lewis retired this month, he was not replaced, and the Town Board hired an independent lab to handle its water testing “at a significant savings.” Lewis’ other duties will be absorbed by other personnel, Engert said.
In the Highway Department, new Superintendent Michael Flint is revamping his department by turning to more part-time help to replace full-timers lost to attrition or consolidation of jobs. Engert said no one has been laid off, but administrators are being asked to devise more efficient schedules using part-timers.
“We are staffing to core, instead of staffing to peak,” Engert said. “We are reducing our full-time footprint by adding part-timers so that we add workers when there is work to be done.”
Engert pointed out that the overhaul of the town’s website last year enabled residents to pay taxes and water bills by credit card directly online, as well.
“Residents can pay these bills at their convenience – from the comfort of their own homes,” Engert said.
There is also a great deal of information that residents – or prospective businesses – can cull from the town website, from assessor’s records to items like building permit forms.
Engert was quick to point out that the assessor’s office is staffed at set times, for instance, for those who still want to visit the office, and a policy is in place requiring department heads to return all phone calls within one business day. In addition, a new email system linking department heads with the public has been created as part of the town website, too.
Engert added, “We have really had to implement a mindset that there are always areas where we can find more efficient ways to do things. And I don’t mean only on the part of our elected officials, but on the part of our employees, as well.”
This has been driven, in large part, by the fact that there has been a narrowing of the revenue stream provided for the past several years by a once robust payment-in-lieu-of-taxes (PILOT) agreement with the Somerset operating facility of Upstate New York Power Producers, formerly AES Somerset.
“There have been significant revenue reductions, and we needed to do something about it,” Engert said. “We all have to be open-minded about doing things differently.”
But Engert was quick to point out that the taxpayers have the final say.
“We realize that some prefer the traditional way we deliver services, so we do have office hours,” he said. “For instance, the assessor’s office is staffed one full day a week.
“We need the residents to let us help them, really,” he said. “We have cut spending and the cost of doing business, but we are asking residents to work with us and take advantage of things like the auto debit withdrawal and the online services. As we make these changes, we have to be attentive – what does the public think of this?”
Engert said Somerset also is working hard to improve broadband computer access in all parts of the town, which would prove a boon not only to residents encouraged to use their computers to conduct town business, but to existing and prospective businesses.