The long wait at Kansas motor vehicle offices didn’t just cost taxpayers time.
It cost them money — and lots of it — as counties paid thousands of dollars in overtime to workers adjusting to a new state DMV computer system blamed for long lines of angry drivers waiting to renew licenses or register their cars.
“The taxpayers still are the ones who are being held hostage,” said Johnson County Commissioner Calvin Hayden. “They’ve got the increased waits, and they’re seeing less services. It’s not benefiting taxpayers at this point.”
Now, some counties are hoping to recoup that money with a new $2 fee, or by persuading the state to cover some of the added expenses.
County representatives, including those from Johnson and Wyandotte counties, detailed the problems with the new computer system at a legislative hearing Thursday in Topeka. Revenue Secretary Nick Jordan also testified, announcing that Gov. Sam Brownback plans to create a task force that will examine ways to improve the motor vehicle system.
Jordan told lawmakers that he believes the system is improving.
“We have sincerely apologized and apologized for May and June and the technical problems that we experienced,” Jordan said. “We think we’re on a better path now.”
But the computer problems’ costs continue to mount.
Through the end of August, Johnson County has spent $72,000 for overtime since the new DMV computer system started in May, a 138 percent increase over the same period the year before. The extra spending rises to a total of $132,000 if $60,000 is included for police security.
Wyandotte County spent $21,600 in overtime, plus it plans to give employees 662 hours of comp time for the extra hours they worked. Sedgwick County spent $67,615 for overtime in the motor vehicle office from May to August, more than eight times what it spent the year before.
What’s more, Johnson County is now adding 16 people to the treasurer’s office at a cost of about $800,000. Wyandotte County is adding four employees at a cost of about $200,000.
Some county officials believe those expenses should be shouldered by the state, not local taxpayers.
“It was their project and it didn’t go well,” said Mike Taylor, spokesman for Wyandotte County’s Unified Government.
The state plans to reimburse counties statewide $561,000 to help defray those unexpected expenses. The money will come from vehicle registration fees paid to the Kansas highway department.
“I don’t know that we’ll cover all their expenses. We’re doing the best we can,” Jordan said.
Meanwhile, Johnson County Treasurer Tom Thomas Franzen is working on a plan that calls for raising fees that the county charges for registering and titling a vehicle.
The county has been running a $500,000 deficit in the treasurer’s office because money collected from state fees aren’t enough to offset expenses, partly because of the staffing needed to ensure smooth operations, Franzen explained. The deficit is only expected to grow as staff is added to deal with the new computer system and assume duties once handled by the state.
Franzen’s proposal — which would raise fees by $2 — would need legislative approval. He’s still trying to get support for the idea and have it included on the legislative agenda for the Kansas Association of Counties.
State Rep. Jim Denning, an Overland Park Republican, said the state should help cover the county’s expenses by using half the money from a $4 fee that was levied to pay for the new $40 million DMV computer system.
The so-called $4 computer modernization fee is supposed to start going to the state highway department next year. But Denning suggested giving $2 of the fee to counties, and giving the other $2 to the Revenue Department for computer upkeep.
However, Franzen is worried that the deficit in his office will still grow because counties must now approve title transactions, which means clerks must review more documents.
Jordan said the counties were assigned the new title responsibilities to ensure that the state received accurate title information. Under the old system, he said titles could be sent to the state with a bad VIN, a misspelled name or wrong address.
Despite ongoing cost concerns, there are signs that DMV lines are getting shorter in Johnson County, where the wait time for a renewal is now running about 1 hour on average, compared to 31/2 hours in May. The wait for title work is now about two hours on average, compared to four hours.
Some of the improvements in wait times can be traced to changes in taxpayer habits: fewer people are willing to brave the trip to the DMV, county officials said, and are mailing in their renewals or doing them online.
In August, only about a quarter of the license renewals were processed in person at the Johnson County DMV. A year earlier, about 41 percent of the renewal business was done in person.
Yet while the wait times in Johnson County have steadily improved, officials are not optimistic that the county will ever return to the days of 30- and 40-minute waits to get either a title or a license renewal.
“I don’t think we’ll ever get back to the old,” Franzen recently told the County Commission. “I think we’re in a new environment in motor vehicle processing.”