How a handwritten note helped Syracuse collect $1.5 million in back taxes

Syracuse Mayor Ben Walsh (left) joined city employees helping to put handwritten messages on courtesy letters sent to property owners who owed taxes.
  • Handwriting works. It’s hard to make a letter stand out in the daily jumble of junk mail we all receive every day. The handwritten note clearly helped. Beyond the uptick in payments, Maywalt received multiple phone calls from people who saw the note from Martha and wanted to talk to her about their tax situation. (One man called to complain — it seems his wife, upon seeing the handwritten note, quizzed him: “Who’s Martha?” He said he intended to pay his bill.)
  • Readability matters. Compared with the annual legal notice the city sends delinquent taxpayers, the new letter was easier to read, with plain language, a box at the top with big letters saying “pay now,” and graphics showing the ways to pay, such as by e-check or credit card. “It’s very different looking from the usual letters we send out when someone hasn’t paid,” Maywalt said. “The envelope got them to open it and look. The content of the letter got them to read it and act.”
  • Have an early and open dialogue with your legal team. The Syracuse effort initially hit a snag with the city’s Law Department. As it turns out, the city is legally required to send delinquent property owners a notice annually, and that letter can play into legal proceedings if the matter ends up in court. The lawyers’ concern: Experimenting with that letter — or not sending one at all in the case of a control group — would violate due process. A workaround was found: The experimental letter was an extra communication, a “courtesy letter” sent in addition to, not in place of, the required one. “It’s important to have an open dialogue with your legal team and ask them what they’re comfortable with and if they have any tips,” Finch said. “If you involve them in the beginning, it’s better in the long run.”
  • Beware of writer’s cramp. Martha did not write the message by hand on nearly 2,000 envelopes by herself. Finch threw an “envelope party” in the i-team’s office, with about 20 city employees, including Mayor Ben Walsh, stopping by to pitch in. Music and cookies made it fun. “It stinks to have to write that message over and over again,” Finch said, adding with a joke: “Cookies are the most important part of the whole thing.”

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