At the D.C. Office of Tax and Revenue, woe is being the 51st caller.
The phone system that handles the agency’s customer-service hotline ably queues the first 50 callers as they wait for assistance. But having many dozens of taxpayers dialing in for help is not an uncommon occurrence in a city of 630,000, and subsequent callers are met with a click and a dial tone.
When Jeffrey S. DeWitt, the District’s new chief financial officer, introduced himself to city leaders last year, fixing the phones was not near the top of his to-do list. But seven months into his term as CFO, he has made improving customer service his top priority — starting with an upgrade to the tax office’s 15-year-old phone system.
“Those things came up over and over again,” said DeWitt, 53, the former CFO of Phoenix. He cited frustrations expressed in almost 60 meetings with Advisory Neighborhood Commission members, civic associations, business groups, nonprofits and other outside groups, plus dozens of other sessions held inside the agency.
His strategic plan for the Office of the Chief Financial Officer, released this past week, represents his blueprint to make shipshape an agency that has been criticized for its fiscal controls, tax-collecting practices and procurement system. The months-long planning process involved whittling more than 100 key projects to 24, each with an examination of the funding and staffing required and an estimated timeline for completion.
The plan is centered on seven “strategic objectives,” with the first focused on customer service — a priority that will warm the hearts of any city resident or business owner who has spent hours on the phone or typing letters to clear up a tax problem.
“They need this,” said Marie Drissel, a longtime civic activist and frequent critic of DeWitt’s predecessor, Natwar M. Gandhi. Drissel said the focus on improving how residents interact with the agency will “make a huge difference.”
While Drissel has been particularly critical of the administration of property taxes, she recounted a recent hassle trying to clear up clerical errors in the handling of her housekeeper’s income taxes. “If I didn’t know the number one person [in the tax office], I would never have gotten her issues straightened out,” she said. “It’s a nightmare, and she was owed money.”
The long-term centerpiece of the strategic plan is a modernized computer system that is set to be rolled out over the coming three to five years. A $37.4 million contract with a Colorado-based firm won D.C. Council approval in June, and tax office staffers are studying the rollouts of the new system in other jurisdictions to ease its implementation in the District.
The new system, DeWitt said, will allow for other innovations that will improve taxpayers’ dealings with the city — tracking their income-tax refunds online, for instance, or allowing businesses to get “clean hands” certifications that they don’t owe the city money — a prerequisite for securing licenses and permits or doing business with the District.
As for the phones, a fix to the 51st-caller problem will be debuted in short order, DeWitt said. By 2017, according to the plan, the tax office should have its phone system fully integrated into a customer management system that will track all interactions. And by next year, all financial department staffers will have undergone a “comprehensive” customer-service training program, and DeWitt says he will establish a community outreach program — again, “comprehensive” — that will include an online event calendar. A redesign of agency Web sites to make them “more complete, transparent and customer-friendly” is also on tap.
Although there is widespread agreement that the tax office needs to improve its customer relations, it is also an agency in which memories of a long-
running embezzlement scam remain fresh. When mid-level supervisor Harriette Walters was arrested in 2007, along with several co-conspirators, on suspicion of stealing a sum that eventually was found to approach $50 million, it put the city’s financial controls into question. And despite numerous investigations and reviews, some doubts persist — a legacy that has had an impact on agency morale, DeWitt said.
“ ‘I hate the name Harriette Walters,’ I heard that” from employees, he said. “ ‘I really can’t stand hearing her name.’ . . . You want to make sure those things are taken care of.” To that end, DeWitt said he plans to bring in a consultant to do yet another a bottom-up review of fraud prevention and financial controls.
Other projects identified in the new plan include creating a long-range capital spending plan, one that looks beyond the current six-year planning horizon; doing a “best practices” review of the D.C. Lottery; and improving the city’s economic forecasting.
For the most part, DeWitt is relying on Gandhi’s senior management team — including the same deputy in charge of the tax office — leading to some doubts, quietly expressed, about how thoroughgoing the changes will be.
DeWitt said there have been “minor” personnel changes but he is not otherwise inclined to clean house for the sake of cleaning house, citing his experience in Phoenix, where he says he watched newcomers come in “hellbent for leather . . . and the culture ate ’em alive.”
“My direction is, I want this plan executed. I want these things done,” he said. “As long as people do that, I’m good. If people don’t do that, then the adjustments that are necessary will be made.”