Many Minnesotans hoping to renew vehicle tabs, get new plates or transfer a title were again left waiting in recent weeks as the state’s new computer system for vehicle registration continues to be plagued by glitches and slowdowns that have occasionally stretched on for hours.
On Thursday, operators of the state’s 174 licensing offices watched as the system shut down in the middle of the afternoon and remained unusable until 7 p.m. Frustrated license office workers had to send customers away and endure long waits on hold as they tried to get help from the state. More system slowdowns were reported nearly every day this week and the week before.
State officials overseeing the rollout of the $97 million Minnesota Licensing and Registration System (MNLARS) say they are making necessary improvements and place some of the blame on offices operating with outdated technology. But nearly 16 weeks after MNLARS was introduced — and with $79 million already spent — it’s still far from business as usual for licensing offices around the state.
“We’ve had to turn people away for fear the system slowdown will affect reporting and money transfers,” said Jeff Lenarz, deputy registrar of the licensing office in St. Paul. “Offices are shutting their doors during the shutdowns, offices are turning away everything except tab renewals. Every office is definitely affected.”
The switch to MNLARS from the 30-year-old system the state formerly used for vehicle and driver licensing is an in-house operation at Minnesota IT Services (MNIT), the state’s technology department. Ten years in the works, the July rollout of the new vehicle licensing system was intended as a first major test in a multiphase project.
Officials from both MNIT and the Department of Public Safety (DPS), which oversees vehicle licensing, faced a wave of complaints from the state-appointed deputy registrars who operate licensing offices through counties and cities or as private businesses. State lawmakers from both parties offered an earful, and Republicans set up a website to field complaints.
In the past 10 days, the website received more than 80 comments — considerably more than the 60 comments logged in the first three weeks of October. Offices in Roseville, Virginia, Minneapolis and White Bear Lake were among the many locations that registered complaints.
At the licensing office in Brainerd, deputy registrar Donny Vosen said his staff has been frozen or locked out of the state system for hours at a time. Specialty plate transfers have been on hold for months at his and other offices. Complaints roll in from people claiming to have mailed in tab renewals and subsequently had their checks cashed, but weeks later are still waiting for the tabs.
Two of Vosen’s 13 employees quit, he said — including one who walked out in the middle of a shift, sobbing. He said two others have been dealing with health problems brought on by stress.
“We’ve met with the [Department of Public Safety] commissioner, and yeah, they feel our pain,” Vosen said. “They say they think this system has potential, which doesn’t mean crap to the person who needs a title.”
A handful of license office workers around the state said the most recent system outages have been particularly frustrating.
Jennifer Wagenius, the property records and taxpayer services director in Washington County, said her county-run office is pouring in extra money to keep up with the ongoing problems. It’s likely not sustainable, she said.
“We’ve been working on overtime and working on temporary staff in some instances,” Wagenius said. “But most often we’re using overtime dollars to fill in the gaps right now.”
MNIT and DPS officials maintain that many of the problems are isolated to one or a few offices. MNIT spokeswoman Cambray Crozier noted that deputy registrar offices are independently run, and that certain offices experienced site-specific problems because they rely on limited bandwidth and out-of-date internet browsers.
Crozier said some wider system outages were related to fixes for specific problems, like an update for offices that use Internet Explorer for web browsing. In a letter to state lawmakers, MNIT said the Thursday outage was caused by a “system operator” who accidentally altered a MNLARS database during routine maintenance.
DPS spokesman Bruce Gordon said the state has continued to manage tens of thousands of transactions, and that most system shutdowns have been planned and limited to a few minutes. Since MNLARS’ July debut, he said more than 1.6 million vehicle tabs have been processed.
DPS officials said they believe delays in issuing tabs are largely isolated events, and that most people who renew online or by mail receive their tabs within one to two weeks. The backlog for titles is longer; the state is now processing paperwork filed in August.
But in the licensing offices, deputy registrars say they’re focused on different numbers: overtime hours, the time customers spend waiting in line, the growing number of official “workarounds” staff must use to complete basic transactions.
“We’re really just kind of stuck,” said Lenarz in the St. Paul office. “As users of the state system, we have no control over the state slowdown. We basically just have to weather the storm and improvise.”