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Demons Continue to Dog the Beleaguered DMV

March 21, 2001|RALPH VARTABEDIAN and JEANNE WRIGHT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It seems like "Mission Impossible" for the Department of Motor Vehicles to keep track of the registrations and taxes on the millions of vehicles in California, even with the agency's sophisticated computers and mail room equipment.

Although the MI team always succeeds, the DMV doesn't. Take, for example, the recent experience of Jan Winston.

She wasn't expecting anything special from the DMV, let alone a big envelope stuffed with documents. When she opened it, she found herself with the titles for about 50 new vehicles financed by General Motors Acceptance Corp.

"I said, 'What's this?' " recalls Winston, a contract-compliance officer for a public agency.. "I have 50 titles of cars. I have cars, trucks, Chevys, Saturns. Anything GM makes, I have titles for."

After investigating the matter, the DMV blamed it on an improperly folded title inserted in an envelope's mailing-address window. The agency says the incident is extraordinary and that it does not normally handle legal documents in such a sloppy manner.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday March 28, 2001 Home Edition Highway 1 Part G Page 2 Financial Desk 1 inches; 18 words Type of Material: Correction
DMV director--The name of Steven Gourley, director of the Department of Motor Vehicles, was misspelled in a story last week.

That's fortunate, because the agency is processing an unusually large number of consumer rebates and refunds.

Under orders from the Legislature, the DMV is in the midst of making partial license-fee refunds on as many as 26 million vehicles. And it still is refunding smog-impact fees on as many as 1.5 million vehicles after a court ruled that levy unconstitutional. It also faces the possibility of 140,000 more rebates involving the Woolsey case, which alleged that the agency levied improper taxes on motorists moving to California. The DMV lost the case, though it's appealing.

A lot of people besides Winston think the DMV could be doing a better job of handling the paperwork associated with the $6.5 billion that flows through the agency annually.

Deborah Kujavski of Norwalk is worried sick over a $55 rebate check her elderly father received from the DMV for the registration fees on his 1997 Honda Civic. The check was made out to both her father, Joseph Kujavski, and the leasing agency that provided financing for the vehicle, GECAL Leasing of Atlanta. The bank wouldn't cash the check without an endorsement from GECAL, even though Kujavski paid the registration fees.

"My dad is retired and it's his $55," said his daughter.

Kujavski doesn't want to send the check to GECAL for an endorsement, figuring that's the last he'd ever see of it. He called state Sen. Charles M. Calderon (D-Whittier), whose office wasn't much help.

The DMV said its policy is based on the advice of its lawyers, who decided that all rebate checks would have to be made out to all the parties listed on the vehicle title.

But the lawyers are just protecting themselves, consumer experts say.

"What they are doing is taking the cheap, easy way out by putting a two-party check out," said Robert Fellmeth, director of the public-interest law center at the University of San Diego Law School.

Fellmeth said the DMV should issue the checks solely to the consumers. It would have been easier if the state Legislature had clarified this issue when it decided to cut DMV fees, but it opted to dodge the problem.

Legislators' attitudes seemed to be, "Why should we get involved in resolving a confusion upfront when we can just sit there and foist it off on the two parties by writing a two-party check," Fellmeth said.

Fellmeth said he's heard complaints similar to Kujavski's. And a DMV spokesman acknowledged that the agency has logged about 50 similar complaints. The DMV continues to recommend that car owners get an endorsement from their leasing firms to cash their rebate checks.

The DMV's chief, Steve Gorley, is trying to change the culture at the department, which for decades has been the epitome of an officious and inflexible bureaucracy with the power to make people's lives miserable.

Gorley has urged the DMV's work force to be responsive to consumer needs and cut out petty autocracy. He's proud of the agency's technology and its improvements in handling the crush of consumer demands, and was beaming on a recent tour of the mail room at the DMV's Sacramento headquarters.

The next few years will determine whether Gorley can really reform an agency still dogged by demons.

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Vartabedian and Wright cannot answer mail personally but respond in this column to automotive questions of general interest. Please do not telephone. Write to Your Wheels, Business Section, Los Angeles Times, 202 W. 1st St., Los Angeles, CA 90012. E-mail: ralph.vartabedian@latimes.com.

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