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Handwritten letters result in more than $1 million in back taxes paid in Syracuse

Ellen Abbott
Leonard Lopoo, left, director of Syracuse University's X Lab, and managing director Joe Boskovski, right, speak at a news conference Tuesday

A collaboration between the city of Syracuse and Syracuse University’s X Lab has helped the city recoup more than a million dollars in back taxes.

The initiative undertaken between the X Lab team and the city focused on the letters that go out alerting property owners that they are behind in their taxes. What they found out, was that letters with handwriting on the envelope were more likely to be opened.

Once opened, a different way explaining a late tax bill made a difference. according to X Lab Managing Director  Joe Boskovski.

"The letters, among other things, made the request obvious within a few seconds," said Joe Boskovski, managing director of the X Lab. "They were personalized, emphasized that the city wanted to help them to avoid more costly outcomes, and even mentioned what services the tax funds.”

Syracuse was able to recoup $1.4 million in overdue property taxes using the new letter style. Mayor Ben Walsh said he was thrilled with the results.

"We send out a lot of correspondence to our constituents, whether it’s zoning notifications, taxes, code enforcement," Walsh said. "And I think all too often what we hear in government, really in any bureaucracy, is 'well, this is the way we’ve always done it.' I think the lesson learned is when you are willing to innovate and try different things, you can achieve  better results.” 

Walsh said the city would like to use initiatives like this in other aspects of city government. He also said it’s more than the money that made this particular initiative important. Getting taxes up to date is key to solving the problem of housing instability that plagues many in Syracuse.

"Approximately 25 percent of our city residents are moving more than one time a year," Walsh said. "So this is really just another way to make sure that we are keeping people stable in their household.”

Ellen produces news reports and features related to events that occur in the greater Syracuse area and throughout Onondaga County. Her reports are heard regularly in regional updates in Morning Edition and All Things Considered.