Until last fall, most transactions at Wayzata City Hall’s reception desk consisted of building permits and other routine paperwork, with a passport application now and then.
Then November came. People who wanted to go to Europe and China and who knows where began lining up for passports. The full-time desk clerk and a part-time colleague were quickly overwhelmed.
“We’re a small community, with a small staff,” said Wayzata City Manager Heidi Nelson. “We used to serve just our little area, and now we’re serving the entire west metro.”
The flood of passport applications began after federal security requirements caused Hennepin County to stop offering passport services. City service desks in Bloomington, Richfield and Robbinsdale also have been swamped.
Though cities receive $25 for processing each passport application, so far the revenue hasn’t been much of a financial boon for a city like Wayzata.
It handled 97 applications in November and 126 in December after processing an average of 21 per month before. Because of the demands on its staff, Wayzata now requires passport applicants to make appointments, capping the number at eight a day.
Richfield, which has seen the number of passport applications triple to 40 to 50 per day, hired another clerk. In Bloomington, which processed 236 applications in November compared with 99 the November before, City Clerk Janet Lewis renewed her passport agent certification so she could step in to help the five other certified workers when it’s busy.
Robbinsdale used to handle about 15 passports a week but sometimes does 30 a day now with the same staff, said Brenda Yancey, motor vehicle coordinator.
“We haven’t hired anyone yet; we’re still trying to get a handle on it,” she said.
Why the county stopped
Hennepin County stopped offering passport services in November because of federal security requirements that passport services be physically separated from areas where birth certificates or other identification documents are processed. Employees who do one duty cannot back up the other department. The concern was that false documents could be created.
County officials estimated it would have cost about $200,000 to physically separate passport processing from other services.
Mark Chapin, head of taxpayer services for Hennepin County, said the county has no plan to resume that service.
While the county had a tradition of offering passport services, he said, it was not a statutory responsibility like driver’s licenses, marriage and death records and other documents.
“I feel for [the cities], because passports are a big deal, and it can be really time-intensive,” he said. “If you have a family of four with language issues, it can take an hour.
“I know we’ve got some disappointed citizens, but I don’t regret that we did it.”
Robbinsdale’s Yancey said her staff has taken flak from some of those residents.
“A lot of people go to different [county] offices and find out they discontinued them, and then they come here and vent at us,” she said. “We try to give them good customer service.”
‘So hard to keep up’
New passports must be processed in person. Thirteen Hennepin County post offices also process applications, but many do so for only a few hours a day. The Minneapolis Passport Agency, a part of the State Department, handles only emergency and expedited applications, according to its website.
That leaves the four cities, all of which have service desks that accommodate the security rules. In Bloomington and Richfield, city clerks said they are enjoying the increased business even if they sometimes struggle to handle the numbers.
“It’s so hard to keep up. Mondays and Fridays are … ohhh,” said a laughing Nancy Gibbs, Richfield’s city clerk. “But no, it’s not too much trouble. It’s revenue, and it’s job security!”
In Bloomington, the same desk that deals with passports handles business licensing. Lewis said she has been concerned that clerks may fall behind in other work because of passport processing, which takes at least 15 minutes for one person and longer for families.
Lewis estimates that passports are now close to half the business at the service counter. When things get really busy, clerks use a conference room for passport processing. She said the city is looking at ways to expand the counter area.
“It’s a wonderful thing — we’re providing a valuable service at the local level, with low customer wait times,” she said. “We like to stay busy, and it’s pretty good revenue.”
Bloomington is directing revenue from passport applications to the City Clerk’s budget to cover staff time, supplies and annual training for passport agents. People who process passports are considered the eyes and ears of the State Department, and are trained to be alert for questionable information or behavior that warrants reporting to federal authorities.
“We do indeed report,” Lewis said.
Revenue results vary
In Richfield, money from passport fees funded an additional position to work the counter. City Manager Steve Devich said the office that handles passport services should bring in more money than it spends this year, and that money will go into the city’s general fund.
“Every dollar that goes into there is another dollar we don’t need to raise with taxes,” he said.
If Robbinsdale makes money off passport processing, the City Council has directed that money to parks.
But Wayzata’s Nelson said that for her city, “processing passports is almost a break-even operation. … We get $25, and it can take half an hour to process the application.”
Wayzata talked about dropping the service, but Nelson said the City Council wants to continue to provide the service to residents.
Bloomington’s Lewis said cities won’t know the real impact of Hennepin County’s decision until the first year is up. She and Gibbs are concerned about election time, when they will need to use their service counters for absentee voting.
Robbinsdale’s Yancey said she was warned by the State Department’s regional office that despite the barrage of passport applications, she hasn’t seen high season yet.
“They said that fall is the slower time and it’s going to pick up,” she said. “If this is slow, I would hate to see busy!”