For a small city, Post Falls is earning a big reputation for its use of new technology.
In 2001, it became the first city in Idaho to become a “paperless government” – utilizing CDs and the Internet to circulate agendas, budgets and financial reports, instead of printing reams of paper.
A year later, the Police Department pioneered the use of high-speed wireless Internet in its patrol car laptops. Law enforcement officials from across the United States, and from England, France and Mexico, visited and called the Post Falls Police Department to learn how the system works. Many have gone on to implement the model in their hometowns.
Technology-savvy employees – and receptive bosses – play a pivotal role in why Idaho’s River City has been able to do what larger towns haven’t.
Another reason Post Falls has jumped on the front seats of the technology bandwagon is that it’s challenging for departments to keep up with a rapidly growing population.
The rising demand on the city “requires us to be as efficient as possible,” said Lt. Scot Haug. “Technology allows us to do that.”
In the next month or two, the Police Department will be the first in Idaho to use e-citations. Officers will scan the driver’s license, fill in the ticket information electronically, print a copy to give to the driver, and with the push of a button, update separate record systems used by the Police Department and the court. Currently, clerks enter citation data by hand.
“This is, again, something Post Falls is pioneering,” Haug said.
Also on the horizon is a document imaging system that will put city documents in a searchable database. Ordinances, agendas, permits and project documents that are now stored in boxes and files – and sometimes need extensive digging to find – will be accessible with the click of a mouse next year, said Michael Kirby, the city’s computer specialist.
These technologies save time for both the citizens and city employees, and they usually pay for themselves quickly.
The Police Department calculated that the equivalent manpower savings at about 4.5 full-time workers by using the wireless technology.
Officers don’t have to drive back to headquarters to write reports. They can type them in their cars while stationed in an area with a speeding problem, for example. Their presence can act as a deterrent, and they can get their administrative duties done at the same time, Haug said.
The officers can also use their laptops to monitor some of the 30 to 40 surveillance cameras hanging in the city.
One of the biggest benefits of wireless Internet is that officers have the ability to read what dispatchers are writing before the completed message is dispatched, Haug said. That has shaved three minutes from officers’ response times.
The wireless system cost $200,000 to set up, $150,000 of which was paid for by a Department of Justice technology grant. The city provided the rest.
The council laptops cost $10,575. That amount was almost completely recovered the first year, with savings of $4,800 in copying costs and $4,200 for 120 hours of labor, said finance director Shelly Enderud. City staff now burn agendas onto CDs and put them on the Internet, requiring much less time and resources.
For critics who fear that technology will mean a cut in jobs, city employees say it’s quite the opposite. Their staffs can’t grow as quickly as the population, so technology is a way to compensate for that gap.
For those who don’t have access to the Internet or prefer interacting with humans to get documents, the city will continue to serve in the traditional way those who come to city hall.
Cities that don’t have someone on staff who is a self-declared “geek” like Kirby are inhibited by the heavy costs that come along with cutting-edge programs, he said.
He is able to get new technology on a small budget because he uses open-source programs that are free or low-cost, instead of brand-name products that can cost thousands of dollars.
And though these advances come with birthing pains – the learning curve, the initial glitches – city employees have been patient because they see the benefits, Kirby said.
“We don’t want to go for things because they’re new and cool,” he added. “We want to look to see if they make sense for the city – make our jobs and citizen support better.”