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County seeks digital upgrades

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On a recent afternoon, it's hard to find a seat in the reception area of the Missoula County Motor Vehicle Department. Nearly two dozen people wait, some clutching small paper tickets. A small boy plays on the floor next to a discarded paper airplane.

"I think only two people have gone up in 45 minutes," remarks an older man to another sitting nearby.

County administrators acknowledge the current wait times aren't ideal, but by next year, a proposed online scheduling service could make trips to the county clerk's office less of a time-consuming hassle.

"It'll make people's wait time with us a lot better because they can wait wherever they'd like to wait," says Tyler Gernant, county clerk and treasurer. He adds that the office is currently swamped because several staff members are training to move to new positions.

Gernant's hoping to secure about $50,000 in funding to create a new mobile queue service to replace the "deli-style" numbered tickets that the clerk and treasurer's office has used for years. The new service, accessible through any web browser, would let users sign up to get a spot in line and receive text message alerts letting them know how much time is left.

"You text in and you get your place in the queue and you're like, 'Oh, well, I've got a half hour, I may as well go to Bernice's or something and get a cup of coffee,'" Gernant explains.

His office is also seeking $150,000, plus a matching grant, for a project to create a digital index of all property records going back to the county's founding in 1864. Currently, only records dating from 1982 forward are available online.

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The clerk and treasurer's requests are among a handful of improvements to the county's digital presence in its proposed 2017 budget. Chief Financial Officer Andrew Czorny says the technology department is asking for $58,000 to hire a developer who would, among other duties, help create apps and improve online systems for the county.

More local governments are connecting with citizens through improved online resources and mobile apps. The Ravalli County Sheriff's Department, for instance, offers a smartphone app with press releases, news alerts and crime-reporting forms. Czorny says Missoula County will first tackle its online permitting system and budget transparency.

"We'd like to get some more budget numbers online so taxpayers can see where revenues are coming in and going," he says.

Overall, this year's county budget seeks to raise property taxes by 3.2 percent. The $42 million Parks and Trails Bond also comes due next year. In total, a homeowner will see an additional $75 on the tax bill for a property worth $250,000.

The Missoula Board of County Commissioners votes on the proposed budget Aug. 24.

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