Local News Spotlight

At the Kansas DMV, the waiting continues

Kansas’ new computer system enters its third month, but major problems persist for harried patrons.

Updated: 2012-07-03T04:25:21Z

By SCOTT CANON

The Kansas City Star

Step into the Wyandotte County Courthouse and ask which way to the treasurer’s office. A security guard will suggest the direction, “if you’re brave enough.”

Paul Walsh stood among the daring. He showed up 8 a.m. Monday and was still in a line that stretched well into the courthouse hallway at 10:30 a.m. He was late for work on a roofing job.

“The last time I was here, it took like 10 minutes,” he said. “This … is just crazy.”

Kansas’ urban counties remain caught in a bureaucratic purgatory of motor vehicle records, where time flows like marshmallow cream.

At the start of the third month of using a new statewide computer system, things remain painfully slow. It came on the heels of a day and a half where for all practical purposes that network had stalled.

A combination of balky software, a backlog created while offices from Mission to Garden City were shut down to move to that fit-prone computer system, and a shift of workloads and even mislabeled envelopes has made the chore of titling a new car about as easy as building one.

A seize-up in the state Department of Revenue computers on Thursday and Friday meant that the line to renew license tags at the Wyandotte County Annex snaked outside the building. (One person passed out in the heat. Shade tents and a swamp cooler were marshaled Monday morning.)

Meantime, state officials have told the software supplier, 3M Co., that it hasn’t lived up to the terms of its $25 million contract. Just ahead of Saturday’s deadline to either accept the system without complaint or ask for something better, the state told 3M it was unsatisfied.

The computer system is too slow, too prone to crashes, has too many bugs and is befuddled by maintenance problems, the state told 3M.

“We have not achieved five consecutive days of conformance with regard to these four measures,” Revenue Secretary Nick Jordan wrote to 3M on Thursday.

That said, state officials continue to defend what they describe as a long-overdue upgrade to a collection of Reagan-era computers and microfilm that would seem quaint were it not so crummy.

The replacement offers new efficiencies and functionality, the state hopes. The rage-ready lines that have shut out all but the earliest of birds are not the only story here, they insist.

Donna Shelite, the state’s director of vehicles, told Shawnee County commissioners last week that county offices across Kansas are actually processing renewals and registrations at a faster clip than last year.

“We fully understand the frustration and inconvenience some customers in several counties have experienced,” Shelite said. “(But) we have seen significant improvements since early May.”

Still, she conceded that the new computer system has disappointed.

The issues “must be addressed to all of our satisfaction so we can continue to improve customer service,” she said.

The state is holding back 10 percent of its payment to 3M until fixes are made.

A spokeswoman for 3M said the infuriating lines are not the fault of software from the company, but the result of “problems with implementation.” She described any imperfections with the 3M product as “technical issues.”

A Wyandotte County spokesman described ongoing problems as “major issues” about which the county treasurer had yet to get satisfactory explanations from the state.

In Sedgwick County, home to Wichita, Treasurer Linda Kizzire said she’d seen a “200 percent” improvement over the early weeks of the new system’s launch in May.

“It’s better,” she said. “Do I think there’s room for improvement? Of course.”

The Johnson County treasurer’s office created a shadow system last week so that it could continue to process files while the state system was locked in a digital funk.

“We did all we could despite that the state system was unavailable,” said Thomas Franzen, the county treasurer.

In 2008, the Kansas Legislature OK’d a new $4 fee and started the long process of modernizing its record keeping for motor vehicles. The state hired 3M to build it a software platform. The company had done similar work for other states before.

The changeover is already a year behind schedule.

Its gripe-worthy lines began when county offices that handle vehicle registration closed for nearly a week at the start of May to switch to the new computer system. It brought new capability to the system — such as giving law enforcement richer real-time data — but it also instantly created a backlog.

In addition, workers in county offices took on new tasks such as scanning paperwork that was previously shipped off to Topeka. And in the first weeks, workers struggled to understand the new system.

Add to that occasional computer crashes — both at the state level and sometimes limited to individual county offices — and the waits became overwhelming. In Wyandotte and Johnson counties, for instance, it’s been common for people to wait five hours or more. And those who don’t show up early in the morning risk being turned away and told to come another day.

Monday marked the fourth time that 37-year-old Jessica Blue failed to get her newly purchased used car registered. She’s been trying since early May after her temporary tag expired at the end of April. The Kansas City, Kan., resident was turned away Monday at 1:05 p.m., she said, despite a sign saying the line wouldn’t shut down for 55 minutes. And that came after she got a ticket — it’ll set her back $119.50 — for the expired tags.

“I wonder why we pay all these taxes,” she said. “I’m extremely frustrated.”

Her tags would have been expired under any scenario. But the state has issued grace periods that acknowledged people could have tried to register their vehicle in May or June and not been able to make their deadlines. Kizzire, the treasurer in Wichita, thinks those grace periods have only encouraged people to procrastinate and added to backlogs.

For now, a two-week grace period ending July 13 could give a break to people who were due to sort out their license plates in June, or who had a 30-day temporary tag — common with the purchase of a new car or truck — that month.

Things were made worse in Johnson County, where 41,000 renewal notices sent out for tags expiring in June included return envelopes — officials everywhere suggest doing things by mail or the Internet to avoid adding to the lines — that had incorrect bar codes. The bar codes directed the payments to the wrong ZIP codes, which probably affected about 8,000 people who used the mail-in option. Postal workers caught most of the mistakes and routed them either to the treasurer’s office or the correct post office box, Franzen said.

Still, some were returned to the senders, jeopardizing vehicle owners’ chances of renewing their tags on time.

Jeannine Koranda, a Department of Revenue spokeswoman, said the problems have been worst in the state’s biggest counties. Most places, where the volume is much lighter, have overcome their backlogs. In fact, authorities in smaller counties don’t necessarily have to honor the latest grace period on expired tags.

While people struggled to settle their accounts with the state without spending a day waiting in line, a new batch of customers seeing July deadlines joined the scrum.

Chris Hayes, a catering manager from Overland Park, had tried to pay for his paperwork on Friday. Bad choice. The last day of the month crams motor vehicle offices with procrastinators. The volume is twice or triple in the last week of a month.

Hayes had to try again Monday. He got a place in line through the county treasurer’s website at 7:30 a.m. and was on pace to be served shortly before noon.

He sat patiently with his 10-month-old son in the hallway outside the office where antsy children fidgeted, women knitted and young men paced in frustration.

“It’s pretty simple,” Hayes said, “but you’ve got to wait.”

To reach Scott Canon, call 816-234-4754 or send email to scanon@kcstar.com.

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