The city of Syracuse has found a novel way of motivating residents to pay their back taxes: handwritten notes by city officials.
The idea stemmed from an experiment on late-tax payments in which city officials wrote and signed thousands of notes by hand, rather than sending standard legal letters demanding payment.
The result was the city collecting nearly $1.5 million more than it predicted traditional methods alone would have brought in.
The notes took a less threatening approach, focusing on steps the resident could take to avoid late penalties or legal action. Instead of being addressed “Dear property owner,” the notes were all personally addressed and had a brief, handwritten message on the outside of the envelope as well.
“It’s the kind of positive outcome that occurs when you aren’t afraid to try something new,” Syracuse Mayor Ben Walsh said in a statement.
Collecting late taxes is a big challenge for many cities, which often use computer-generated letters to residents threatening action if the money isn’t paid. Researchers said they aren’t aware of any other city in the U.S. using the method to collect taxes.
“These are small, simple changes that can have huge payoffs,” said Leonard Lopoo, a Syracuse professor and director and co-founder of Maxwell X Lab, a behavioral research center at Syracuse University.
The lab’s managing director, Joe Boskovski, called the experiment common sense, saying treating people as humans can yield results.