MNLARS woes have costly impact on Kandiyohi County
WILLMAR — It was late afternoon and the line at the Kandiyohi County License Bureau stretched past the counter and around the corner.
The scene has been typical ever since the July 2017 launch of the problem-plagued MNLARS computer system for motor vehicle licensing and registration.
Some of the woes that accompanied the startup are easing, said Deb Mickle, deputy registrar for Kandiyohi County.
"I would say it's gotten better. Part of it is just learning a new system," she said.
But there are still daily headaches for Mickle and her staff as they deal with an increased workload and longer lines at the counter.
More than this, the new system has cost Kandiyohi County taxpayers in labor, overtime, equipment and lost revenue.
Mickle estimates the county incurred $66,000 in additional expenses during the first 12 months following the MNLARS conversion.
Some of these were one-time costs, such as setting up a new station for an additional staff person to help handle the increased workload.
Many of the expenses stemming from MNLARS are ongoing, however, and they're borne at the local level.
The Minnesota Deputy Registrars Association puts the added cost to licensing centers at $9 million statewide.
When the system was rolled out nearly two years ago by the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, it was supposed to introduce a web-based system for driver's licenses and motor vehicle registration.
Even if everything had gone smoothly, it represented a major change for the 174 licensing centers across the state.
"It has changed how we do business," Mickle said.
Transactions now occur at the point of service instead of being submitted to the state, leading to more time at the counter for customers and longer lines.
Mickle had to add another full-time position, bringing the staff to seven. Another station at the counter had to be created from space that was already limited. There were increased costs for equipment and overtime.
The woes that accompanied the MNLARS rollout added a whole new layer of issues for license bureaus to contend with.
"The day it started, it was obvious that things weren't going to go well," Mickle said.
The system was plagued with outages, causing delays for the public. There were glitches with transactions. Some transactions couldn't be completed at all, an issue that cost Kandiyohi County an estimated $12,400 in lost revenue during the first 12 months after the system was launched.
Because rates are set by statute, it's left to counties and privately run license centers to absorb the increased costs.
"We can't raise prices to cover the cost of any of this," Mickle said.
A bill allowing vendors to recoup their losses did not make it past the 2018 legislative session. A similar measure is working its way through again this year.
And the spending isn't over yet. This year Kandiyohi County plans to build a waiting area that will allow waiting customers at the County Office Building to sit down instead of standing in line.
The estimated cost: $175,000.
The need is driven both by the License Bureau changes and by early voting requirements that have a growing impact during election cycles, said Larry Kleindl, county administrator.
The License Bureau and the County Auditor's Office are both in the County Office Building in downtown Willmar. Overall traffic is expected to spike significantly when early voting opens for the 2020 presidential election, Kleindl said. "We are anticipating longer lines and even longer waiting."
Contractors were scheduled to tour the building this week. The issue will come before the County Board of Commissioners when plans and cost estimates are finalized.
The County Commissioners say they recognize the need.
"Even the busy times are getting busier," said Harlan Madsen.
The volume amounts to hundreds of transactions each day. The License Bureau handles an average of 222 to 250 motor vehicle transactions daily, Mickle said. Driver's license transactions average 55 to 60 per day.
On some days the volume is much higher. The department has processed as many as 90 driver's license applications in a single day, and on a recent Monday logged 458 motor vehicle transactions, Mickle said.
With time, some of the headaches have eased. Outages have become rare and most transactions can now be completed.
But as in many license bureaus, Mickle and her staff have had to make changes to accommodate new realities.
There's now a daily deadline for long applications such as a vehicle title transfer. "We won't start them after 4:15 anymore because we won't get them done," Mickle said.
The introduction Oct. 1 of the enhanced Minnesota driver's license and Real ID has added to wait times at the counter, especially during peak times.
Some license centers are losing employees due to the ongoing stress, although this hasn't happened yet in Kandiyohi County.
"My staff is very loyal," Mickle said. "They work hard. We're very supportive of each other."
But the past two years have been challenging, she said. "We all get tired by the end of the day."
The License Bureau is working hard to get out the message to the public: Fill out your forms and have your credit card or checkbook handy before you get in line.
Signs have been posted at the License Bureau and links have been added to the county website at kcmn.us to help answer some of the most commonly asked questions.
Mickle's advice: "Be patient. If you're coming over the noon hour or the last Friday of the month, be patient. We try to move as fast as we can and move people in and out."
Customers are coping with the challenges, she said. "For the most part the public has been very patient and very understanding. They understand it's not us. They understand it's not something we can control."