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Thurmont pilots on-line bill paying

(3/22) It's not unusual to sit in a Thurmont town meeting after business hours and hear the clank of a metal door closing as someone deposits a water, tax or electricity payment into a lockbox at the Thurmont Town Building.

Now it might be the tapping of computer keys that signals after-hours bill payment. The Thurmont Town Commissioners are testing a way of paying town utility bills on-line using PayPal.

"There is a price to pay for using an electronic service and basically, it's a percent of invoice," said John Kinnaird, chairman of the Thurmont Media Commission.

The committee looked at ways to offer on-line bill paying from the town's Web site and decided that the only way it might be feasible would be to use the on-line bank service called PayPal.

"It's not an exact fit for paying bills," said Commissioner Glenn Muth. "But it would allow us to accept credit cards."

The cost for the service would be 2.9 percent of the bill plus 30 cents per transaction. This cost would have to be built into the overall bill, which could create a problem.

"Generally speaking, people don't want to spend a 39-cent stamp on their bill. I'm not sure if they'll want to pay 2.9 percent," Kinnaird said.

Even if bills are paid at the town office, the town does not have the ability to accept credit cards. If residents want to pay their bills with credit cards, using PayPal would allow them the option.

PayPal is an on-line banking service that became popular as a way to pay for E-bay auction items. The company now has over 96 million accounts.

Establishing a merchant account to accept credit cards at the town office would require the town to pay a monthly fee as well as a percentage of the bill. PayPal has no set-up costs or monthly fees.

"In all honesty, only one person has mentioned it," Kinnaird said. However, the media commission decided to look into the issue.

Besides being expensive, Kinnaird said PayPal might also be complicated for staff. For instance, each bill would require six different payment amounts: the actual bill, the bill with the early payment discount, the bill with the late fee and each of those with the PayPal charges built into it.

"I wouldn't want to think anyone's tax dollars are paying for someone's convenience," Kinnaird said.

Thurmont Clerk/Treasury Richard May said he wasn't even sure that the Maryland Public Service Commission would allow the town to add a charge to the bill to cover the PayPal fees.

Gunter Elert with the PSC reviewed the town's pricing and fee structure and said, "Because it's optional to participate, I think the tariff allows it."

Interested enough in making town bill paying more convenient, Thurmont commissioners will pilot the program using themselves as guinea pigs.

After they see how well the town can address any problems that arise during the pilot, the commissioners will decide whether or not to roll out the program to the general public.

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