by Ruth Greenberg

Collecting Its Due

Jun 13, 20078 mins
IT Leadership

The Big Apple's Department of Finance makes the bit of municipal licensing fees less painful. n

IF YOU’VE RIDDEN THE NEW YORK CITY subway recently, you’ve probably been dazzled by the shiny new cars. The city has cleaned up the way its financial information travels, too. New York City’s Department of Finance and its Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (colloquially known as DoIT) have collaborated on a digital infrastructure for the city’s complicated system of revenue collection.

Developed by the Department of Finance’s Systems Architect Alfred Curtis, the City Agencies’ Management Information System (CAMIS) has become the city’s best advocate, diplomat and public relations machine. It helps business owners pay licensing fees and fines on time, lets city workers quickly record fine payments and even simplifies law enforcement agents’ hunt for scofflaws. EVA judges were impressed by the way CAMIS has allowed New York City to maximize revenues and untangle its massive bureaucracy at the same time. At the Department of Consumer Affairs (DCA), which collects fines and fees from practically every business in the city, employees depend on CAMIS to keep track of payments for the hundreds of New Yorkers who visit the office every day. The department once held boxes upon boxes of uncashed checks–all lost revenue for the city–because workers couldn’t post payments fast enough to keep up. Now it takes less than a minute to post a check and record its receipt, and it’s easy for employees to do-so easy that the database captured the attention of other departments within the city. “When other people saw what a good resource it was, they wanted to use it,” says Charles Niessner, assistant commissioner for management information systems at the Department of Finance.

A Database as Big as New York

CAMIS is made up of a large database, a data communications network and PCs and terminals all over the city. “CAMIS stores 4 million records, with information on 500,000 city businesses; the database includes businesses that have been inspected, issued a violation for some reason, previously held or still hold a license or are awaiting approval of a license,” says Niessner.

CAMIS serves all the businesses in the city, which in turn cater to 7 million people, squeezed into five boroughs covering approximately 300 square miles. Without an organized system, that would be enough economic activity to cause gridlock in the flow of information. By next fall, CAMIS will also be used by the Taxi and Limousine Commission to store information on the city’s 50,000 licensed taxis and limousines and their 80,000 drivers.

Employees from all parts of the city’s infrastructure have access to the database. Health inspectors use it to plan their restaurant visits, and municipal workers post every payment of fines and licensing fees in the system. But CAMIS also keeps all the city departments in communication with one another. When a change in the records is typed in at the licensing office in lower Manhattan, every city employee from Queens to The Bronx can see it.

“You can search for information using any scrap of data,” Curtis says. Just punch in any distinguishing characteristic of a business–its name or the owner’s name, a number relating to a violation, complaint or business license, or even something as vague as its neighborhood–and you’ll get the history of its dealings with the city. Niessner puts it this way: “If you, as a business owner, tell us your address, we can tell you how much you owe in about a second.”

A business’s status isn’t available only to city government officials, either. The moment anyone applies for a license or permit, or receives a citation or a complaint, that information becomes available to any interested party. The city’s integrated voice response system, accessible through a touch-tone telephone, reveals how much debt a business has, the status of its license and when all of its payments were received and posted. “Right now, CAMIS stores complaints; soon we may make those records accessible to the public through self-service kiosks or the Internet,” says Annette Heintz, assistant commissioner for consolidation at the Department of Finance.

The Downtown Runaround

Before the arrival of CAMIS in 1995, a business owner who owed a fine would have to go back and forth between different geographical locations before getting approval for a license. Now it’s one-stop shopping for owners, a convenience that can’t help but keep city government workers-and the businesses themselves-satisfied. That’s important, says Niessner, because CAMIS really benefits what he calls “the ultimate customer”–the citizen who does licensing business with the city.

The system was first used to consolidate $390 million worth of parking tickets. Now, workers put CAMIS through its paces by using it for the real-time processing of almost every business-to-city transaction. As soon as a check comes to a cashier’s window or through the mail, workers record its receipt in CAMIS. Previously, payments were sent to a bank for nighttime data entry. The bank then created a tape that was used to update the host system. This whole process could take as long as a week.

Because of those point-of-sale updates, CAMIS can quickly provide payment information for any of the city agencies. For example, if city inspectors decide to close down a business for neglecting to pay its legal judgment debts, they can check CAMIS for the latest payment information before they leave. If the business has paid its debt anytime before the moment the agents arrive to padlock the doors, CAMIS will reflect that information. The result: The system saves the business from shutdown and the agents a costly trip. And at $250 a pop for a Department of Health inspection, for example, the city can save a lot of money by avoiding unnecessary inspections.

Real-time payment updates also let the Department of Finance find out if a business owes the city any money because of a violation. If so, the business will be denied a license. “Sending a letter usually produces the money quickly,” according to Heintz. “Keeping on top of that information results in higher collections and more city revenue,” she adds.

Once other city departments noticed CAMIS’s success, they wanted to sign on. The first of these, the city’s Department of Health, started to use CAMIS in 1996. Workers there need to access information on thousands of restaurants, send out notices when payments, fines or fees are due and help customers, city officials and business owners, get the dirt–literally–on the city’s 20,000 licensed eating and drinking establishments.

The Department of Health kept paper payment ledgers until 1996, but transferring those records to electronic files and keeping them on each employee’s desktop has helped maintain cleaner data, since changes can be made by anyone who has access to CAMIS. That way, a fee can be charged, the balance paid and the transaction recorded–simultaneously.

Agencies with extensive databases, like the Department of Health and the Department of Consumer Affairs, are the best examples of CAMIS’s users, but other city agencies benefit from the system, too. It has proved a good resource for everyone from the police department, the District Attorney’s office, the State Inspector General and the Better Business Bureau to the investigatory arms of the New York City Council, the New York City School District and the New York City Department of Sanitation.

The City Cleans Up

CAMIS’s primary goal was to provide the city with a technology to improve productivity and a compatible database among agencies with a similar customer base. One of the secondary goals was to develop a cost-effective mechanism to increase the collection of outstanding money owed to the city. Computerizing the fine collection process has allowed the city to automatically send out tens of thousands of collection notices, with no additional staff hours or costs. According to Heintz, the city collected some $3.7 million in fines between 1994 and 1997 as a direct result of the CAMIS system that would have been lost under the old paper-based maze.

Under Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, New York’s city agencies feel the pressure to increase their efficiency. The mayor’s determination to simplify city government, balanced against the bureaucratic urge to stick with policy, put DoIT on the spot. As Niessner says, “CAMIS helped two of the city’s largest and most profitable agencies consolidate their records, employees and office space. City government cross-trained employees to do all sorts of licensing procedures. A cashier who used to collect fees for the Department of Health might now collect fees and fines from a Department of Consumer Affairs customer. That makes it easier for people to interact with the government, which is the goal of all this improvement.”

There are 30,000 terminals in the Naked City, and they can all be connected to CAMIS. About 500 people use the application routinely. CAMIS can hold 32 million records per file–about eight times its current volume–so it’s capable of dishing up data as fast as city agencies can generate it. When someone submits a query to the database, response time is almost immediate. If you were to divide IT into degrees of difficulty, organizing the city of New York would rank high on the scale, just on the basis of the city’s size. As CAMIS expands and becomes more citywide and less agency-specific, city employees will be able to manage the city’s affairs the way good businesses manage theirs: accurately, fairly and securely.


Editorial Assistant Ruth Greenberg can be reached at