There was a time when heading to license bureau at the Wright County Courthouse to renew a driver’s license, pick up new tabs or license plates or transfer the title on a vehicle was something that only took a few minutes. Lines were short and people could pop in and pop out in a matter of minutes.
But, thanks to a 1-2 punch from both the state and federal government, residents have found much longer wait times, delays and frustration as what used to be a simple process has become much more complicated due to MNLARS (Minnesota License and Registration System) for vehicle title transfers and license plate/tab renewals and Real ID – a new form of driver’s license that are now required by federal law based out of Homeland Security concerns dealing more with air travel than driving.
MNLARS rolled out in Wright County July 25, 2017 and the program was beset with problems from the outset. Started in 2009 with $100 million in funding, the intent of the system was to have everything dealing with vehicle transactions to be in real time – by the time a resident left the courthouse with tabs, plates or a title, it would already be in the state system that they had been purchased and ready to use. But, that hasn’t happened.
The turnaround time on vehicle title changes was expected to be less than two weeks. More than a year-and-a-half later, even with some tweaks to the system, the wait time is six to eight weeks – approximately what it was before the launch of MNLARS, but that is down from two to three months wait time in the early stages of the program.
Wright County License Bureau Supervisor Becky Aanerud and Jessie Gadach of the license bureau have been at the front line of the transition for both programs and have been forced to deal with the problems, especially with MNLARS, which was launched with the full knowledge that, despite nine years of preparation, it wasn’t ready for release.
“We were warned for years about potential problems,” Aanerud said. “It just took so long because they kept telling us it was coming. Initially, they had Hewlett-Packard write (the software program). Then there was a controversy and they fired Hewlett-Packard. Then the program design went to MNITS (Minnesota Information Technology Services). We kept being told, ‘It’s coming. We’re working on it.’ When it finally came out, we were warned two or three months in advance there could be problems.”
One of the first tests of the program was to simulate transactions, but they couldn’t get the system to link up and work. The common phrase the county license bureau would hear was, “It’s a known problem. We’re working on it. It will be fixed.”
Wright County wasn’t alone. Aanerud and Gadach both said they heard similar concerns from other license bureaus in other counties and cities and the same mantra was told – the issues were recognized and would be fixed before the rollout of MNLARS. When the program finally did roll out, it was an unqualified disaster.
“They promised us that they would fix all the things that weren’t working before the rollout,” Gadach said. “On the very first day, the system crashed. We barely could get it to do anything for us. Everything that we had told them we were worried about became problems went the system went up live.”
The MNLARS system was deemed by the state to be an abject failure and despite more money being poured into it, the system still remains broken and non-customer friendly. But, late last year, a second problem for local license bureaus was rolled out.
Compounding the ongoing MNLARS issues, on Oct. 1, 2018, Minnesota began implementation of Real ID driver’s licenses, a federally mandated program that will be required by 2020 for people to fly within the U.S. or to travel overseas (with an enhanced license). Because of the additional requirements needed to approve the new licenses – multiple documentation that a person is who he/she claims to be, as well as inputting the renewal data in real time, Wright County has doubled its equipment and counter staffing due to necessity and growing lines, causing a separate set of issues for residents coming to the county courthouse to get renewals that used to be an in-and-out proposition.
“The Real ID and the enhanced licenses have caused real headaches,” Aanerud said. “We’re entering a lot more information at the counter than we ever did before with driver’s licenses and we have to examine the documents they bring in with them. A driver’s license renewal used to take about five minutes to complete and we would input the information after that person left. Now it’s about 15 minutes – and that’s if everything goes well. An enhanced license can take 30-45 minutes. You add that up for each person, it’s caused much longer lines, delays and frustration from the public who have to wait.”
The requirements for Real ID include multiple forms of identification (a current license and multiple documents affirming a name and address, etc.). If there is a typo, discrepancy or photocopy, the customer needs to get new documentation – “we have to be fussy, because the federal government is fussy about this process,” Aanerud said.
The license bureau income is based on having people use the county office to generate revenue. If someone license, plate or tab renewals on-line, even if they live in Wright County, the registrar’s fee for processing the renewals goes to the state. While the county is struggling to keep up with the inherent delays that have been caused both by MNLARS and Real ID, license bureau officials are urging residents to keep going through the county because, while costs have gone up to operate the office, revenue has remained largely the same and county officials stress that residents continue to use the local offices because, despite delays, license fees are their only source of revenue, despite a system that isn’t designed to optimize customer service, which causes its own issues.
“The problem on our end is that there are just more steps involved in everything,” Gadach said. “It’s not a straight pass to get anything done and it does not have a fix for any errors whatsoever. If there is a mistake, you can’t back up the screen a page. You have to go out and start over again. There is no editing capability, which adds time.”
Auditor/Treasurer Bob Hiivals, who oversees the license bureau said that staff of working as hard as possible to streamline the process, but that residents need to be mindful of the problems – both in terms of revenue to the county and problems inherent with both new systems.
“The true cost of operating both these systems has gone up, but the fees collected hasn’t,” Hiivala said. “The result has been that, to fund the license bureau, some more costs have been forced to come on the levy and paid by taxpayers in Wright County. But, we’re providing this service and we strongly encourage everyone to come in to our office to get their licenses, titles and tab renewals because that is how we bring in revenue.
“I think the public really does appreciate the customer service they get from our employees,” Hiivala added. “But, they have to appreciate there is only so much the employees can do. MNLARS was written by the State of Minnesota and Real ID and enhanced licenses have additional requirements that we have to get the data inputted for. We have a great customer service staff and, unfortunately, they’ve had to be the face of the problems with the program.”
John Holler covers government and the Wright County Board of Commissioners.