Montana Viewpoint©
Long waits when renewing driversí licenses have created frustration and anger

May 24, 2004

The two most difficult jobs in government must be at the County Treasurers’ Office and the Drivers’ Examiners Stations. Those are some of the few jobs where the public comes into direct contact with government employees, and if the public is frustrated or angry, they are not shy about letting the employee know it.

They’re barking at the wrong person, of course. Who they should really be grousing at is their state legislator. Because a couple of really disgruntled citizens did just that, and called me about problems with getting their drivers’ licenses renewed, I’ve discovered what I believe are some pretty serious problems at the bureau that issues licenses, the Field Operations Unit of the Division of Motor Vehicles. I called several employees across the state to get their take on things.

Applicants have had to endure long waits, and some have even been told to come back next week because the examiner had to close shop for the day. It’s easy to understand the citizens’ frustration, and lots of us take it out on the poor soul behind the desk, but it’s not his fault; it’s because of chronic under-funding of the Unit by the Legislature.

The license fees we pay cover only part of the cost of running the Unit, and the Legislature cut the funding by 5% last year. This has helped cause high turnover, understaffed offices, and lack of working equipment; and incredible inconvenience for the citizen.

The two most serious problems are understaffing and equipment failure. Understaffing is caused by a high turnover of primarily new employees because of low morale. Turnover’s been estimated at around 30%, but that’s just one employee’s informed guess. It’s not fun to take verbal abuse from people you’re trying to help, and the wages just don’t make up for it, apparently.

Understaffing occurs because of legislative restrictions on refilling job positions until certain budgetary requirements have been met. This is called “vacancy savings,” which would take an entire article to explain. It might save money, but it doesn’t provide good service. I was told staff positions go unfilled for an average of two to three months that and managerial positions can go unfilled for up to a year.

Most of the problems seem to occur at the “traveling” offices—those stations open only a few days a month. That’s where equipment breakdowns occur most often. The cameras used are delicate, and not meant to be constantly moved from place to place. Polaroid, the company that made them, is bankrupt, and service is usually done by telephone to a contract service in Helena. There is little backup equipment, and it will certainly not get to remote stations from Helena the same day. Sometimes there is trouble with the computers being able to connect with the main computer in Helena.

In an attempt to save costs, the 1999 legislature extended the license renewal period from 4 to 8 years, which reduced the annual number of renewals some 30%; but then added new, more stringent applicant identification requirements because of identity theft concerns. That more then made up for the savings by being very time consuming. Applicants are often confused as to what’s needed, and it’s not uncommon for people to be sent back home to get the right documents.

The employees I talked to were for the most part very frustrated. They want to provide good service (something I believe all state employees strive for) but are faced with problems beyond their control. As much as they want to accommodate their customers, they can’t work over time without prior approval.

All in all, I think the Bureau is doing their best with what they have. I surely don’t envy them their jobs. The culprit is the Legislature, whose rationale has been, “we don’t have the money to do it right.” Well, after giving hundreds of millions of dollars a year in tax cuts since 1995, that’s true. The problem with the Drivers’ License Examiners is only a symptom of a larger problem in state government: the public demands a level of service that the legislature is not willing to provide.

The tax cuts, much of which went out-of-state, have failed to generate the economic growth that was the expected result. If they had, we would not be faced with an annual budget crisis, and it might only take a day to get a drivers license renewed.

Next time you get frustrated with a state employee, don’t take it out on him; call your legislator.


Jim Elliott
Phone: 406-444-1556
Mail: State Senate Helena, MT 59620