The Montgomery County Council has voted to scale back substantially a $1.1 million proposal by County Executive Douglas M. Duncan that would have enabled citizens to conduct certain business with the county over the Internet.
The council, in a 7 to 2 vote, decided last week to spend only $300,000 for the project, saying it was too expensive and had not been thoroughly evaluated. The two members voting no opposed spending even that much.
Last spring, Duncan made the proposal--called "eMontgomery"--at a news conference at the county's new treasury department payment outlet in Rockville.
His plan would have enabled residents to use the Internet to pay parking tickets and property taxes online, augmenting previously funded online programs for requesting plumbing permits, registering for Montgomery College, selecting courses and buying books.
"We want to make it even easier for our residents to make payments any time of the day or night, without leaving their home or office," Duncan said in making the announcement.
Montgomery was believed to be among the first municipalities in the area to suggest such a plan, although other cities allow fines to be paid online, and Boston and Washington State permit property taxes to be paid over the Internet by mortgage companies.
The council voiced support for the idea, but only to a point.
It voted the $300,000 to develop software so that customers could track, but not pay, their property taxes over the Internet. Funding for any online parking ticket processing was put off.
"That's not true e-commerce," Duncan complained this week. "Montgomery County has, if not the highest, one of the highest rates of computers in home in the country. We should be a trendsetter in the use of technology, not relying on the mail service."
"We got a little bit," he said of the council vote, "and we're going to the next step, and we're going to have to take them every step of the way and bring them into the next century."
Council member Marilyn Praisner (D-Eastern County), who chairs the council's management and fiscal policy committee, said at a Sept. 28 council meeting that the panel supports county e-commerce.
"This is a very exciting proposal, but also a very exciting initiative from the standpoint of our moving into e-commerce," she said. "There are significant opportunities that may come as a function of folks being more aggressive in using computers, telecommunications and the Internet for the transaction of business as well as information."
"That said, the committee . . . had some issues or questions associated with" Duncan's proposal, she said, and countered with the alternative, which she said Duncan's staff backed.
Praisner said the council's research on the topic showed that other municipalities venturing into e-commerce had partnered with the private sector, to reduce "or at least minimize the initial taxpayer investment."
"We believe that those options should be explored before the county invests, itself, in that kind of infrastructure," she said.
She added that the council also was concerned that the county select the proper "transactions" to be handled online, so as to save money and maximize service to the citizens.
"It is unfair to say that the council is not supportive of e-commerce," she said, "and it is not fair to say that we are reluctant on these issues. . . . The committee is supportive of e-commerce but believes the initial proposal that was brought to us had significant flaws.
"We believe that e-commerce is going to play a significant role in county government in the future, but we want Montgomery County to do it correctly."
Council member Betty Ann Krahnke (R-Potomac-Bethesda), who opposed even the $300,000 expenditure and wanted only $50,000 spent on planning, said: "I strongly believe that Montgomery County should begin conducting business through e-commerce. . . . However, the plan that came over to us was not well thought out . . . I think we should have a better blueprint for action before funding infrastructure for e-commerce or hiring county employees."
Council member Nancy Dacek (R-Upcounty), who also voted against the decision, agreed, saying more private-sector involvement should have been sought.
"I, too, believe that e-commerce is the wave of the future, and that sooner--perhaps unfortunately--than later, we'll never have to leave our house to do anything," she added.