Early adopter: Hillsborough tax collector employs chatbot

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

She speaks English and Spanish. She answers customer’s questions, making it easier for her co-workers 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 through Gulf Breeze vendor CogAbility -- operates with artificial intelligence. She went online in August for a $33,000 setup fee, 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 has served a year in office 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 being trained to estimate costs on registration renewals. She’ll likely be helping patrons walk through their transactions ahead of time to ensure they can complete them when they come in.

In the future, she’s expected to make an appearance on social media as well as text and talk on the phone, adds Debra Bellanti, the office’s director of Communications and Community Relations.

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

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

The Tax Collector’s Office is an early adopter of the technology: Only Santa Rosa County is using it, she adds. Hillsborough is the first to teach her to speak Spanish.

Sofie is just one step toward broadening services digitally: Plans call for a virtual office, to be phased in by the end of 2024. It is not expected to totally replace face-to-face services, although it can reduce the number of in-person visits required, and ensure a transaction is successfully completed when it is.

“What I envision is you’ll be able to conduct business from the convenience of your home,” explains Millan, adding that some documents still may need to be physically examined to meet other agency requirements and combat fraud. “As we move into this more virtual world, my goal is to expand this office and provide services and added convenience for our customers.”

Read on for other important changes

The office also is now is 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 found their registration blocked online if tolls were unpaid; 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 February 1, enabling these fines to be collected by the Tax Collector’s Office in the near future.

It has eliminated the need for a driving examiner to be present in the car when an individual is undergoing the driving test required for a Florida Driver’s License.

“We were the first in the state to do the remote driving testing,” Millan notes. “We’ve continued to do that. We’ve been an example to the state.”

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

“The commands are given over the phone. They are actually monitoring and watching all of the maneuvers,” she explains. An adult 21 years of age or older can sit in the passenger seat and hold the cellphone for the driver.

It has enabled employees to work at home, especially when under quarantine for COVID-19, when otherwise sick but well enough to work and preserve their sick leave, or while caring for sick family members. This was implemented in late 2020.

Its first, publicly available fiscal report shows the office collected $2.4 billion in fiscal year 2021 and passed on $2.1 billion to the top 10 taxing authorities.

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

“We only keep for our budget the commission and fees to do the transactions and that covers our operating costs. Whatever we don’t use of those commission and fees, we give to the county government. This year we gave $22 million to the county government at year end,” Bellanti explains.

Visit the Hillsborough County Tax Collector’s website to see Sofie’s smiling bot face on the right side of your screen, where you can “Start Chat.”
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Read more articles by Cheryl Rogers.

Cheryl Rogers is a freelance writer and editor who enjoys writing about careers. An ebook author, she also writes Bible Camp Mystery series that shares her faith. She is publisher of New Christian Books Online Magazine and founder of the Mentor Me Career Network, a free online community, offering career consulting, coaching and career information. Now a wife and mother, Cheryl discovered her love of writing as a child when she became enthralled with Nancy Drew mysteries. She earned her bachelor's degree in Journalism and Sociology from Loyola University in New Orleans. While working at Loyola's Personnel Office, she discovered her passion for helping others find jobs. A Miami native, Cheryl moved to the Temple Terrace area in 1985 to work for the former Tampa Tribune