As Prince William is wooing high-tech companies to relocate here, so is high-technology wooing the county.
Bought a car? You can register for a new decal through voice mail. Interested in a house? You can study the size and shape of a particular tract of land, examine the adjoining properties and find out where your children would go to school if you lived there.
In a status report of its "Information Technology Strategic Plan" unveiled yesterday, Prince William revealed just how much can be accomplished through the county Web site and voice mail system. In the coming months, users can measure the elevation of a parcel of land, schedule a building inspection or ask questions about their tax filings.
The county has completed the first year of a three-year technological crusade, to which it already has devoted $3.2 million and plans to spend an additional $7.1 million over two years. Since the project began, one of the biggest successes has been the county Web site. During June alone, the site registered about 1.2 million hits, or visits, compared with about 120,000 in April 1998.
Masood Noorbakhsh, Prince William's chief information technology officer, said the county did not know at first how much interest there would be in a Web site. Employees asked themselves, " 'Would they come if we build it?' And the answer is yes," he said. "People are coming from all over the world."
Through the Web site, residents already can learn basic county information, reserve books from the library catalogues or access their own real estate assessments. By September, they should be able to interact with a mapping service that gives the gritty details of county land for prospective buyers and developers--even down to the comprehensive plan for a particular parcel, what school jurisdiction the parcel is in and the contours and elevation of the parcel.
Residents already can use the county's voice mail system for tracking the status of building permits and inspections and for paying personal property and real estate taxes by credit card. Throughout the fall, county staff will be adding more capabilities to voice mail. Those include Department of Social Services functions such as answering questions about Medicaid and food stamps and juvenile and domestic relations issues.
County staff members say that about 2,000 transactions are being conducted a week via voice mail and that this technology is saving the Prince William money. A typical call that would cost $4 for a county employee to answer costs 10 cents to $1 if directed through the voice mail system.
Prince William also has increased the number of phone lines it offers by 48, to 166, leading to fewer busy signals.
County employees, meanwhile, can access an internal Intranet and benefit from a county initiative to replace personal computers and network servers every three years to keep up with changing technologies. Staff also are working on Y2K compliance, which is now at 89 percent, Noorbakhsh said.
But for all the advantages that such progress enables, it might take a while to iron out the kinks between impersonal technology and its human users. At yesterday's afternoon work session of the Board of County Supervisors, Supervisor Edgar S. Wilbourn III (R-Gainesville) complained of a recent incident in which the county voice mail system shifted him from option to option as he struggled to get a real person on the line.
Perhaps that's the price of modernity.