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DMV Adding Workers to Shorten Lines

The agency is hiring 400 to help speed up driver's license renewals and vehicle registrations.

March 12, 2004|Carl Ingram | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — The Department of Motor Vehicles is adding 400 workers to reduce long lines at field offices throughout California, despite the budget shortfall that has forced hiring freezes elsewhere in state government.

The chief of the Department of Motor Vehicles disclosed an emergency plan Thursday to aid drivers who must register vehicles or renew licenses.

Responding to complaints from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, state legislators and hundreds of thousands of motorists, interim DMV Director Chon Gutierrez said people were being hired to staff overburdened field offices, part-time employees would be made full time, and overtime pay would be routinely approved for staff members who worked extra hours.

In the aftermath of budget cuts imposed in recent years by the Legislature and former Gov. Gray Davis, the DMV lost more than 1,000 employees. Of those, more than 300 were in field offices that deal with the public.

As a result, the licensing and registration processes have been so slow that motorists must wait in long lines anywhere from an hour and 20 minutes to more than four hours.

In a study he commissioned, Gutierrez found that the longest wait -- four hours and 55 minutes -- occurred at the Oakland Coliseum field office on Feb. 2, the day of the test. The second longest wait, at the Van Nuys office, was four hours and 52 minutes. The average wait was two hours and one minute at Oakland and one hour and 31 minutes at Van Nuys.

The law directs the department to handle routine transactions over the counter in no more than 30 minutes -- a deadline that has been chronically violated as the number of employees declined and the volume of business increased in a state of more than 23 million drivers and 27 million vehicles.

In an interview, Gutierrez forecast that motorists should start noticing an improvement in service and reduced waits within one month, when the first batch of new employees gets behind the counters and other reforms take hold.

"Things will get better in the offices," Gutierrez said. "Things will be better for our employees and better for our customers."

In one of his first actions on becoming governor in November, Schwarzenegger strengthened a hiring freeze issued last July by Davis. It was a directive that applied to the DMV, even though virtually none of its money comes from the state general fund, which is running a multibillion-dollar shortage. The DMV's support comes from license and highway taxes, and is virtually isolated from the fiscal crises.

Gutierrez said he believed the full effect of the measures disclosed Thursday would be clearly visible to all motorists by June 30. On the same day, he said, a series of longer-range improvements would start, among them an expanded use of the Internet to allow motorists to renew licenses and registrations. He suggested that transportation-related industries also would be encouraged to switch to online processes rather than mail paperwork to the DMV.

As one of his first appointments, Schwarzenegger named Gutierrez -- a veteran troubleshooter with 30 years of service in state government -- to direct the DMV on an interim basis and to expedite the delivery to motorists of millions of dollars in rebates of vehicle license fees. Gutierrez said his immediate superior, Business, Housing and Transportation Secretary Sunne McPeak, had run interference for him so that relief for motorists became a No. 1 priority.

He also confirmed that the governor's Department of Finance had agreed to give the DMV an exemption from the hiring freeze so that it could immediately recruit, hire, train and deploy field office workers.

Gutierrez estimated the total cost of his first reforms during the remainder of the fiscal year ending June 30 would be $4.7 million. The first 265 employees have been recruited, 80 are in training and 70 have been sent out to jobs, he said.

Long lines and excessive delays at the DMV are a hot-button issue with lawmakers, Gutierrez said. "That is the single most common issue they bring to my attention," he said.

In her analysis of Schwarzenegger's proposed state budget, Legislative Analyst Elizabeth G. Hill cited the employee cuts last month as the major cause of what she called the deteriorating levels of service of the DMV. As a way to increase DMV revenue, Hill suggested that the Legislature consider a series of fee increases, including raising the price for retaking a behind-the-wheel driving test from $5 to $15 and imposing an unspecified fee on customers who fail to show up for a scheduled driving test.

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