Cities exploring high-tech ways to save on cash

Cities across the Peninsula are finding that replacing employees with machines is becoming an effective way to save money during trying economic times.

Most cities in San Mateo County are facing budget cuts, or at least financial belt-tightening, resulting in hiring freezes or layoffs of city employees. But technology is saving hundreds of thousands of dollars for cities each year.

In San Carlos, where leaders are facing what they are calling a “fiscal emergency,” residents were left without a City Hall receptionist after the position became a budget-cut casualty.

The solution? A front-desk computer avatar, appropriately named Carly, who greets visitors and provides much of the assistance a human used to offer based on its built-in programming, Assistant City Manager Brian Moura said.

The virtual receptionist is poised to save San Carlos $90,000 per year. Carly is already becoming famous, as the city has begun receiving inquires about her from cities in states as far away as Montana, said Jasmine Frost, who designed the program for the city.

Officials in Foster City, meanwhile, are busy installing “radio read meters,” which are essentially water meters that automatically send information to the city. Once the meters are running across the city, the full-time meter reader position can be eliminated, Foster City City Manager Jim Hardy said.

In addition to cost savings, reading the city’s water meters will take just a few days, instead of months, thanks to the new gadgets, Hardy said.

Millbrae has spent years bringing its financial head above water after cuts earlier this decade. Its police force has been able to reduce officer and desk employee time by doling out electronic tickets to traffic violators, City Manager Ralph Jaeck said.

Motorists still receive the paper ticket when they are pulled over, but officers automatically send a copy of the infraction to the local court through an electronic ticketing system called “auto cite” once it is written, Jaeck said.

Redwood City is actually using technology to raise money. It currently is undergoing a “virtualization” process, which will reduce the number of computer servers.

All of the free time the IT employees will have from not having to maintain the servers can be used performing work for the dozen or so other cities and agencies to which Redwood City contracts its employees, Finance Director Brian Ponty said.

“We’re always looking for ways to fine-tune our system, which is what we should be doing,” Ponty said. “We live in an automated age.”

mrosenberg@sfexaminer.com

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