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BEHIND THE WHEEL

Going to DMV? Bring a Book

Fewer employees and more customers add up to longer lines for California drivers.

November 12, 2002|Hugo Martin | Times Staff Writer

If you fail the Department of Motor Vehicles' driving test, you will pay a new $5 fee to take the test again. If you are a few days late in registering your vehicle, you will pay a $17 penalty instead of the usual $10.

But if you think these higher fees -- which take effect Jan. 1 -- will go toward improving the woeful service at the DMV, think again.

Combined, these and other new DMV charges will generate an additional $58 million a year for the state. But the extra cash won't be spent on more workers to serve the suffering masses in those long DMV lines. In fact, Gov. Gray Davis recently signed a budget that cuts -- not adds -- positions at the department.

More than half of the 93 positions cut from the DMV are "field representatives," the folks who work at the counters trying to keep those lines moving.

The DMV already has about 800 vacant positions and has maintained a hiring freeze for months.

With the state's population continuing to skyrocket, you don't have to be a member of Mensa to calculate the results.

"A slight increase in wait times," predicted DMV spokesman Armando Botello.

How slight? No one can say. As it is, Californians already wait an average of 25 minutes to register a vehicle and 23 minutes to get a driver's license. Here in Southern California, home of the 10 busiest DMV offices, the wait is 35 minutes to register a car and 33 minutes to get a license.

The governor's cuts were needed to close a $23.6-billion shortfall in this year's budget. The DMV was not the only agency to feel the edge of the budget knife. Overall, Davis cut 7,000 positions statewide, on top of the 6,600 positions that had been left vacant.

None of that mollifies the angry motorists stuck in lines at local DMV offices.

"Oh man -- I don't like this wait now, let alone a longer one," said Christina Martinez as she waited at the downtown Los Angeles DMV office to replace stolen license tags. She had already waited 30 minutes, and saw from the huge crowd around her that she was probably going to wait another 30 minutes.

The Los Angeles office is one of the many DMV branches where the state has launched a new "take-a-number" queuing system that DMV chief Steve Gourley has touted as the "biggest thing since sliced bread."

But according to the latest DMV estimates of wait times, the system has yet to produce the dramatic results promised by Gourley.

He and other DMV officials say motorists can bypass the long lines by making appointments or using the DMV Web site (www.dmv.ca.gov/) to complete certain transactions.

Gloria Secrest of Los Angeles took that advice and scheduled an appointment for 12:50 p.m. on a recent afternoon. At 1:45 she was still sitting on a hard plastic seat at the Los Angeles DMV office, staring at a TV monitor, waiting for her number to be called.

"Longer waits?" she said, her voice trailing off as she shook her head in disgust.

But DMV customers aren't the only ones lamenting the budget cuts.

DMV employees complain that they are often the targets of anger and frustration over the long lines.

Earlier this month, a 25-year-old Stockton man who failed a driving test allegedly attacked his DMV tester in Manteca, punching the employee and kicking him after he tripped and fell. Police are investigating.

"The public is angrier and surlier," said Lois Kugelmass, a spokeswoman for the California State Employees Assn., which represents about 8,000 DMV workers.

She said DMV offices are understaffed and their staffs are overworked and unfairly blamed for the long waits.

"It's terrible that our people get this bad rap," Kugelmass said. "It's not their fault."

Esther Diaz, a DMV worker in the West Covina office, has been serving motorists for nearly 10 years and she is fed up.

She complains that DMV management won't fill vacant positions, forcing an already overburdened staff to carry the increasing load. Making matters worse, she said, the computers at her office are slow and antiquated.

"We have stress from the public and stress from management," she said.

To pare the state's budget, Davis recently offered some state employees a voluntary early retirement package, known as a "golden handshake." Because the DMV is so understaffed, its employees were not allowed to participate.

Normally, employees like Diaz are not allowed to comment to the media about conditions within the agency without approval from DMV headquarters in Sacramento.

So, why is Diaz willing to speak out and incur the wrath of her bosses?

She is quitting next month.

It seems that even the workers can't stand to spend much time in a DMV office.

"Nobody likes to go to a state office anymore," Diaz said.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Be Prepared, Be Patient

The wait at DMV offices will grow. These are the 10 busiest offices, ranked by the estimated number of people served in the past year. Also included are the average waiting times for registering a car and getting a driver's license.

1. West Covina (400,422) 45 minutes/52 minutes.

2. Arleta (391,908) 26 minutes/19 minutes.

3. Montebello (348,981) 21 minutes/22 minutes.

4. El Cajon (346,411) 27 minutes/25 minutes.

5. Los Angeles (342,688) 59 minutes/39 minutes.

6. Bellflower (329,767) 28 minutes/26 minutes.

7. Pomona (325,819) 42 minutes/42 minutes.

8. Westminster (320,224) 30 minutes/29 minutes.

9. Fullerton (318,760) 50 minutes/51 minutes.

10. Bell Gardens (315,636) 24 minutes/23 minutes.

Source: DMV

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If you have a question, gripe or story idea about driving in Southern California, send an e-mail to behindthewheel@latimes.com.

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