Miami Herald: Fees up but Fla. motor vehicle agency strapped

Mar 17, 2010

The Miami Herald published this article on March 17, 2010.


Associated Press Writer

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Florida last year taxed motorists’ wallets. Now, it’s taxing their patience.

The Legislature in 2009 dramatically raised a wide range of fees collected by the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles. Yet, the agency is so strapped for cash it’s skimping on supplies, travel and other expenses, closed some offices and frozen hiring, leaving 335 positions vacant.

That’s contributed to longer lines at driver’s license offices and more busy signals for motorists who phone the department.

“The amount you’re paying just to change an address for a license or reinstate a license, it’s ridiculous,” said Allan Rodriguez, 46, as he waited outside a Miami driver license office recently. “Then you have to spend half a day just to do something simple.”

The service problems are due to a budgeting glitch and overly optimistic forecast of how much money the fee increases would bring in as well as new federal identification requirements.

Just about every motor vehicle fee went up in September, including a 35 percent increase in annual tag fees that ranges from $5 to $11.40, depending on a car’s weight. The initial vehicle registration fee more than doubled, going from $100 to $225. The cost of an initial driver’s license went up from $27 to $48 and a renewal increased from $20 to $48.

One break for motorists, though, is they’ll have to renew their driver licenses just every eight years instead of six.

The service problems got worse in January when Florida began implementing new requirements for obtaining or renewing licenses. A federal law passed in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks requires states to have the new requirements in effect by mid-2011.

Motorists must provide a primary form of ID such as a birth certificate or passport. They also must have a Social Security card or some other documentation to verify their Social Security number and two proofs of residency such as utility bills, bank statements or mail from government agencies. A married woman who has taken her husband’s last name also needs a marriage certificate.

“It’s the perfect storm,” said department spokesman David Westberry. “It’s an increased workload, so to speak, in terms of the amount of time I have to interact with you as a customer at the same time that I may be running a little short-handed.”

The department’s latest quarterly report shows only 54 percent of driver’s license customers waited less than 15 minutes at its 54 highest volume offices during the six months before the new identification requirements went into effect. An exact comparison with the prior budget year cannot be made because that figure of 89 percent includes all offices. Lower volume offices usually have shorter wait times.

The report says nearly 100 vacant positions in field offices have contributed to the longer wait times. The department’s other vacant positions include 133 in the Florida Highway Patrol.

Only 40 percent of customer service calls were answered within two minutes. The department tried to remedy the problem by adding 46 phone lines in February. Within a minute, the lines were full and customers again were getting busy signals due to the huge calling volume, the report says.

The service problems could have been avoided if not for the staffing vacancies, Westberry said. He said the encouraging news is that the agency processed 500,000 driver’s licenses in the first 60 days after the new ID requirements went into effect.