Hillsborough tax collector employs a chatbot

Like other relatively new employees, Sofie is still learning the intricacies of her job. But she is well on her way to leaving her mark.

She speaks English and Spanish. She answers customer questions, which makes it easier for her colleagues on the call staff. And she does it all from her home on the Hillsborough County Tax Collector’s website.

Sofie — a Cogbot, or chatbot provided by Gulf Breeze’s CogAbility provider — runs on artificial intelligence. She went online in August for a setup fee of $33,000, less than a regular employee’s salary.

The office has budgeted $12,000 in 2022 for basic maintenance.

“I think it’s important that we use innovation to meet the needs and demands of our constituents,” says tax collector Nancy Millan, who served a year after being elected in 2020. “Convenience and access are so important.”

As Millan relies on innovation to make services more accessible, she has big plans for her digital agent.

Sofie is trained to estimate registration renewal costs. She will likely help customers go through their transactions ahead of time to ensure they can complete them when they arrive.

Going forward, she is expected to make an appearance on social media as well as texting and talking on the phone, adds Debra Bellanti, director of communications and community relations for the office.

Additionally, Sofie may also be able to transfer a client to another agency, such as a court, when using the same AI service.

“She answered over 65,000 questions from over 41,000 unique users. And we certainly saw a decrease in calls to our contact center,” reports Bellanti.

The tax collector’s office is an early adopter of the technology: only Santa Rosa County uses it, she adds. Hillsborough is the first to teach him to speak Spanish.

Sofie is just one step towards the digital expansion of services: plans call for a virtual office, which will be phased in by the end of 2024. It is not expected to completely replace face-to-face services, although it can reduce the number of in-person visits required and ensure that a transaction is successfully completed when it is.

“What I envision is that you will be able to do business from the comfort of your home,” says Millan, adding that some documents may still need to be physically reviewed to meet other agency requirements and to combat fraud. . “As we move into this more virtual world, my goal is to expand this office and provide additional service and convenience to our customers.”

Read on for other important changes

The office is also now able to process Central Florida Expressway Authority fines for toll violations, allowing customers to pay their fines and renew their registrations in one trip. In the past, customers had their online check-in blocked if tolls were not paid; they usually had to make two trips to the tax collector’s office before successfully renewing a registration. The Tampa Hillsborough Expressway Authority approved a similar partnership on Feb. 1, allowing those fines to be collected by the tax collector’s office in the near future.

It eliminated the need for a driving examiner to be present in the car when a person takes the driving test required for a Florida driver’s license.

“We were the first in the state to perform remote driving tests,” Millan notes. “We kept doing it. We have been an example for the state.

Drivers make an appointment and go to one of the offices, where they are tested on a driving range and not on the street.

“Orders are given over the phone. In fact, they monitor and monitor all the maneuvers,” she explains. An adult 21 or older can sit in the passenger seat and hold the cell phone for the driver.

It has allowed employees to work from home, particularly when quarantined for COVID-19, when they are otherwise sick but well enough to work and preserve sick leave, or while caring for members of sick family. This was implemented at the end of 2020.

Its first publicly available tax report shows the bureau collected $2.4 billion in fiscal year 2021 and forwarded $2.1 billion to the top 10 tax authorities.

The top taxpayer is Tampa Electric Co., which paid $46.9 million in fiscal 2021. The top 10 taxpayers paid $115 million, of which only a small portion was kept for office expenses. .

“We keep for our budget only the commission and the fees for making the transactions and this covers our operating costs. Anything we don’t use from these commissions and fees, we donate to the county government. This year, we gave $22 million to the county government at the end of the year,” says Bellanti.

Visit the Hillsborough County Tax Collector’s website to see Sofie’s robot smiley face on the right side of your screen, where you can “Start Chat.”

Esther L. Steinbach