County considers credit card options

Published 12:13 am Thursday, September 12, 2013

Would you pay a $2 fee to pay your property tax or tag renewal online?

That’s what Covington County Commissioners are currently debating as the group examines offering credit card conveniences at its major departments.

Currently, the county probate office is the only county location where residents can pay using a credit/debit card.

Commissioners would like to see the practice accepted at the county revenue, engineer’s and sheriff’s offices; however, the question remains whether or not the county should absorb the fee for the service, called a “convenience fee,” or pass it along to the resident.

At the probate office, that fee – which totals approximately $1,500 a month – is absorbed by his office, Probate Judge Ben Bowden said, and he doesn’t want to see the practice change. On Wednesday, Bowden asked commissioners to exempt his office from any new policy that would pass that fee on. At least two commission members – Chairman Bill Godwin and District 2 Commissioner Joe Barton – disagree.

Bowden argued that fees collected from other probate services cover the cost of allowing residents to use their credit card. He said up until a year ago, the office did charge a fee, and when it was removed, Internet tag renewals “went off the charts.”

In the 2012 annual probate office report, it showed that in November 2011, the office collected $7,000 from online renewals. That figure spiked that September and again in July 2012 to more than $15,000 a month.

That, coupled with the fact that the process keeps people out of lines at the courthouse, improves efficiency, Bowden said.

Godwin said the other departments could “piggy back” the probate office’s current service contract.

“Then, we have to decide if the general fund can pick up the fee or make the consumer pay the fee,” he said. “We are in a plastic society. I don’t believe that charging a fee deters anyone from using their credit card. We need to be fair to all the public and look at a county standpoint, not a department standpoint.”

Bowden said he disagreed.

“Before changing our software a year ago, we charged a fee,” he said. “When we took that fee off, usage (of Internet renewals) shot up because people didn’t want to pay that fee.

“When people are paying a $500 property tax bill, a $2 or $3 fee won’t cause a problem, but when people are paying a $23 tag, they’ll balk at paying that fee,” he said.

Sheriff Dennis Meeks said the new gun law requires that if a credit card fee is assessed to pistol permit costs, it must be passed on to the resident.

County attorney Julie Moody agreed with Meeks and informed commissioners that the Andalusia and Opp utility offices do not charge customers a convenience fee when paying their utility bills.

In addition to tabling the credit card discussion, commissioners attempted to implement an on-call pay schedule for road employees; however, the motion died for a lack of a second.

In other business, the commission approved a mutual aid agreement with local municipalities for debris removal during natural disasters; approved a variety of bids for road department items and appointed Dianne Stevenson, Joe Bush and Bernard Stewart to the county department of human resources board.

The meeting was continued until Sept. 26, when commissioners will discuss the new 2014 budget, an employee classification and pay plan and other administrative issues.