Long lines, frustration rule Bureau of Motor Vehicles

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The Bureau of Motor Vehicles is in the process of hiring temporary workers to try and reduce lines at its branch offices where the wait can sometimes be more than two hours for a license renewal.

The situation is worse at some mobile unit locations, which are open a couple of days a month at town office buildings, churches and civic halls to help residents with simple requests like licenses and state IDs. Those locations are now bursting with business.

At the mobile office in Waterville, for example, people were lining up at 7:30 in the morning last Friday just to get their name on a list even though the office didn’t open until 9. Hours there are 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 2 to 3 p.m. the first Monday and second and fourth Friday of every month.

Jeri Hume-Trott said she put her name on that list only to be told, “we’re not going to get to you guys.” She and others were instructed to go to the branch office in Augusta and pull a number to assure service.

“I took time off from my job,” she said. “This isn’t right. We pay state taxes.”

Tami Gagnon, with a child in tow, said she too had come from Waterville where in the afternoon session they had 40 people left over from the morning. “I own a daycare and it’s hard to get out,” she said. “I hired somebody to come in so I could leave.”

Secretary of State Matt Dunlap, who oversees the Bureau of Motor Vehicles, said Monday there doesn’t seem to be any letup in sight. He said expanding hours at the mobile locations isn’t an option since they are staffed by people who make the drive from Augusta.

He has been authorized to transfer $375,000 within his department to hire 14 temporary workers until mid-spring of 2006 to work at the 13 regular branch locations, located in Augusta, Bangor, Calais, Caribou, Ellsworth, Kennebunk, Lewiston, Mexico, Portland, Rockland, South Portland, Springvale and Topsham. In the meantime Dunlap is lobbying legislators to increase staff in the department.

Dunlap said while there were problems earlier this summer when the department switched driving records over to a new computer system, the current crunch has nothing to do with new technology. Rather, it is an historical surge in license renewals that happens in a pattern of two slow years and four busy ones.

“We just came out of a dip,” in terms of license renewals, he said, and now the state is seeing “normal traffic,” with a 190 percent surge in foot traffic.

“It’s something I need to seriously work on with the Legislature,” he said, because it doesn’t make sense to “gear up your staffing levels toward your slowest times.”

Dunlap already has closed the doors on branch offices at 4 p.m. instead of 5 to cut down on the number of people waiting inside after normal business hours. He said those curtailed hours likely will be in place through October as he tries to hire the temporary staff. Those who get in the door by 4 are waited on no matter how long it takes.

Dunlap didn’t want to say when people should come to the motor vehicle offices to avoid long lines, because it was impossible to predict.

“It tends to vary,” Dunlap said, although “this summer’s been bad every day.” And, the worst lines are in urban areas.

“It’s always a rat race here,” said Jennifer Thorne-Masson of Augusta, who added, “most people don’t have the luxury of coming here and waiting all day.”

Another woman, who didn’t want her name used, said she had been in a week before but turned around and walked out it was so crowded. On Friday, she decided to “take the whole afternoon and do it.” She had been waiting to renew her license for two and a half hours.

Jason Guest, a resident of Ellsworth attending the University of Maine at Farmington, was in Augusta right before the doors closed at 4 p.m. to get his motorcycle license. He said he didn’t have any plans for the evening.

“I’ve never seen lines like this at home,” Guest said.