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"This is a disaster": Legislators hear about auto license problems at Willmar hearing

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Carolyn Lange / Tribune Pat Walsh, owner of Atwater Ford, testified Monday in Willmar to area legislators and members of the House Subcommittee on Technology and Responsive Government about problems with the state's new vehicle licensing and registration system.2 / 6
Carolyn Lange / TribuneDeputy registrars and vehicle dealers testified Monday in Willmar before area legislators and members of the House Subcommittee on Technology and Responsive Government about problems with the state's new licensing and registration system.3 / 6
Carolyn Lange / Tribune Deb Mickle, left, supervisor of the Kandiyohi County licensing bureau, and Debra Folkerts, supervisor of the Renville County licensing bureau, spoke Monday to legislators in Willmar about problems they've experienced since the state's new licensing system was launched this summer.4 / 6
Carolyn Lange / Tribune Deb Mickle, left, supervisor of the Kandiyohi County licensing bureau, and Debra Folkerts, supervisor of the Renville County licensing bureau, spoke Monday to legislators in Willmar about problems they've experienced since the state's new licensing system was launched this summer.5 / 6
Carolyn Lange / Tribune Deb Mickle, left, supervisor of the Kandiyohi County licensing bureau, and Debra Folkerts, supervisor of the Renville County licensing bureau, spoke Monday to legislators in Willmar about problems they've experienced since the state's new licesning system was launched this summer.6 / 6

WILLMAR — Some guy driving a 2015 Chevy Silverado left the Kandiyohi County vehicle licensing bureau a happy man the other day after he paid just $51 to renew his vehicle tabs.

"Anybody here who knows anything about cars — or a 2015 Chevy Silverado — knows that guy got a heck of a deal because they are much more than that," said Deb Mickle, Kandiyohi County licensing supervisor, during a hearing Monday in Willmar before the House Subcommittee on Technology and Responsive Government.

"We called St. Paul when we couldn't get it to calculate correctly and were told to tell him it was his lucky day," Mickle said.

The situation Mickle described was the result of problems with the new Minnesota Licensing and Registration System that was rolled out the end of July before all the kinks were worked out.

Known as MNLARS, the new system was "70 percent done" when it was rolled out, according to Rep. Dave Baker, R-Willmar, who chairs the committee and invited legislators to hear first-hand from deputy registrars and auto dealers in Greater Minnesota.

"I don't think it was ready," Baker said of the plagued computer system that has bogged down even simple tasks like transferring vehicle titles and correctly calculating the cost of basic services.

"We are now doing transactions that we know are wrong and we're collecting the wrong amount of fees," Mickle told the legislators. "I feel like that's a real disservice to our public."

At the cost of about $90 million and eight years in the making, frustration with the new system was clearly evident as deputy registrars spoke about not meeting the needs of customers who face long lines and long waits and still walk away empty-handed.

County offices have incurred hundreds of hours of overtime and have hired additional staff — which has increased costs — while at the same time losing revenue because wrong prices are calculated or because customers are opting to get services online or through the mail, Mickle said.

Suzanne Jensen, president of the Minnesota Deputy Registrar's Association, said she fears some local offices will eventually close because of the loss of revenue.

Auto dealers have also been stuck putting in extra time to provide customer services and getting blamed for the state's inability to provide timely tabs or transfer titles.

Amber Backhaus, from the Minnesota Automobile Dealers Association, said calls to her office "have not stopped" with complaints. She said there had been an "utter lack of communication" from the state to dealers.

One dealer who specializes in handicapped vehicles, said the new system makes it very difficult to get specialty license plates for customers like handicapped veterans.

Lonnie Apol, a Harley Davidson dealer in Raymond and Alexandria, said he's watched the time-consuming process deputy registrars have to use with the new system.

"It's extra steps times one thousand," Apol said. "My heart goes out to the DMV."

Rep. Jim Nash, R-Waconia, said the inefficiencies of the system and the overtime hours at local licensing offices and dealers is staggering.

"This is a disaster," Nash said. "Our sincerest apologies."

Although a similar hearing about MNLARS was held two weeks ago in St. Paul, Baker said it was important to let the concerns of people in Greater Minnesota be heard.

"I hope the Governor has heard loud and clear that this is a bigger problem than I think he realizes," said Baker, who was disappointed Gov. Dayton did not allow agency staff to make the trip to Willmar.

With funding in short supply after Dayton's veto of the Legislature's budget, Baker was asked about the expense of hosting the second hearing in Willmar.

Baker said the estimated $500 for the hearing was "a heck of a deal" to let local voices be heard about a failing system the state spent nearly $100 million on.

Despite the frustration, Baker said he's optimistic the system will eventually be fixed — hopefully before the state rolls out its new driver's license Real ID system next year.

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for more than 30 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

(320) 894-9750
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