Contributor: Executive Assistant, Carole Jones, City of Fort Walton Beach
The City of Fort Walton Beach is a full-service government organization with approximately 300 employees providing services to more than 21,000 residents. Services include police and fire protection, cultural and recreational activities (parks, library, museum, and two golf courses), planning and zoning, public works (streets, sidewalks, and rights-of-way), and utility services (water, sewer, storm water, garbage, and recycling).
Fort Walton Beach is a seaside community in Okaloosa County, Florida, surrounded by the Santa Rosa Sound, Choctawhatchee Bay, and Cinco Bayou. Founded in 1937, the City has a small town, charming feel with the benefits of an urban community, including 11 traditional neighborhoods, of which seven are located along the shoreline.
In 1868, John T. Brooks purchased 111 acres in what now is downtown Fort Walton Beach and the Brooks Landing area. The most significant factor in the City’s growth was the creation and later expansion of Eglin Air Force Base in 1937.
To scale some processes to accommodate the growth, the City adopted technology to increase automation and collaboration. We interviewed Carole Jones, executive assistant in the City Clerk’s office, to learn more about how the municipality manages their growing number of records requests using JustFOIA.
The volume of Public Records Requests (PRRs) they received per year are:
- 2018-2019: 518
- 2019-2020: 478
- 2020-2021: 282 YTD (10/1/20 – 4/15/21), which puts them on track for a 27% annual increase (609) for the year
PRRs and lien requests are an excellent source of revenue for the City. For property lien searches, the City charges $32 and other fees depending on the amount of time it takes to process the request, paper usage, CDs burned, and more.
This happy customer thought outside the box and saw the value of using JustFOIA to streamline this process as it was similar to public records requests. All departments were already trained on using the system.
Carole was the lone lien warrior charged with intake, communication, and coordination across departments for the lien search fulfillment. It was a major struggle to keep up with all details and coordinate with other departments, so Carole did what so many of us do – created a tracking spreadsheet. She successfully processed around 35 lien requests per month but knew there had to be a better way.
The Original Lien Request Response Process
When Carole received a request on paper, she would create an Excel spreadsheet, which was part memo and part request. She documented the following information:
- The staff member responsible for conducting research
- The requester’s contact information
- The property name and owner’s information
Once she added the information to the spreadsheet, she sent it to the departments and waited for their responses. Carole then added their responses to the Excel spreadsheet with the appropriate disclaimers for code enforcement liens, including a PDF version of that sheet.
The biggest pain point Carole hoped to solve was the cumbersome way of processing requests via email, assembling responses, and going back and forth with requesting companies.
Before email, it was all paper, “Gosh, a mountain of paper,” Carole shared. She had a whole file cabinet filled with an entire year’s worth of searches. It was overwhelming.
The process for distribution, sharing, and storing information through email meant responses were physically printed and boxed up to retain for one year as per regulatory requirements.
The type of information requested most often includes the following:
- Accounts Receivable Requests – this one is more of a catch-all – if something was not identified somewhere else and there is an entry in AR, that means that it slid by somewhere, so the information they search for may show on an old fire inspection fee, for example.
- Utility Billing Requests – when water, sewer, sanitation bills are left unpaid, they work on getting those collected.
- Permit Requests – for building permits that are issued to a homeowner.
- Outstanding Lien Requests – using their accounting software to find whether a commercial property owes money for a fire inspection fee or a homeowner let their house run down, and they have a code enforcement lien against it.
“I’ve been doing this long enough that I didn’t believe it could be done easier, and I was wrong!” – Carole Jones, executive assistant for the City Clerk
Now, the process is way more efficient:
JustFOIA is now in use with the following departments to enable streamlined internal collaboration on searches, communication and transparency to the requestor, much faster fulfillment, payment collection, and a rock-solid audit trail to demonstrate compliance with regulations:
- City Clerk (public records requests, accounts receivable requests, and lien searches)
- Utilities for Customer Service (utility bill requests)
- Permits (permit requests)
- Code Enforcement (outstanding lien requests)
“Implementing the payment portal made us much more efficient!” shared Carole.
”When we went to JustFOIA, we didn’t have the payment portal in place. We realized that the requesters were not making payments, and the searches never started. Once the lien companies realized that the process started as soon as they paid the invoice, it normalized the experience for all parties involved. The finance department was ecstatic! No more taking payments by phone on a piece of paper – saving everyone peace of mind,” explained Carole.
The departments still complete research, but now they provide information to Carole within the JustFOIA software. She can send out all responses via the system. When she selects who will receive the response, it automatically sends the email with an audit trail to prove compliance.
The JustFOIA team provided implementation training, and Carole took it from there. “When it’s new, you take in what you can comprehend and then ask questions as you go,” said Carole.
“Your support team and the explanations they provide are always A+. The follow-up email gets sent with a description of the issue, how we resolved it, what to do the next time and how not to get into that muddle again,” Carole happily explained.