Call the Brown County license center in New Ulm and — after many rings — you’ll reach an apologetic, harried-sounding voice message asking if you’d mind waiting a bit longer to renew your vehicle tabs or make other changes to your registration or license plates.
“Because of the new state system and the high traffic of transactions we’re doing right now, we are unable to answer the phone or return your message,” the message says. “If you have any item that could be put off for a couple of weeks, we would appreciate it.”
Six weeks after Minnesota’s Department of Public Safety (DPS) rolled out a new computer system for motor vehicle licensing tasks like registration renewals, car titles and license plates, licensing offices around the state are feeling a similar strain. Glitches in the transition between the new system and the 30-year-old one it replaced have caused delays, long lines and frustration on both sides of the service counter.
While there’s been significant progress on some of the upgrade’s biggest hiccups, customers at some offices are still facing delays, particularly on less-common tasks like transferring or renewing specialty license plates.
Most affected are 175 deputy registrar offices scattered around the state, locally owned and operated private enterprises that deliver licensing services via government contracts.
Registrars’ offices began getting information about the upgrade — which has been in the works for nine years — a year before the new system went live. The state held demonstrations beginning in March and offered 10 weeks of training that began in April. But when the switch began in July, many offices struggled to accommodate customers who showed up to use their services. A few registrar’s offices closed temporarily, or dropped their hours.
Stephen Nieswanger, the deputy registrar in Mower County, said the situation has improved considerably since those early weeks, when he and other employees were going home stressed and “shell shocked.” He estimated that about 90 percent of the problems have been fixed, although his team is often using short-term patches he calls “workarounds,” rather than permanent solutions. He said it’s clear the state and the individual offices will need to do more to get things back to normal — especially since more upgrades to the Minnesota Licensing and Registration System (MNLARS) system are coming in the future.
“Customers aren’t delayed that much unless we run into a problem,” he said. “If we sit here for five to 10 minutes [to fix it], then we start sweating bullets trying to figure what we’re doing wrong.”
Registration renewals come with a 10-day grace period, so people who have paid for their new tabs have 10 days after the end of the month in which they are due to get them on their plates. DPS officials notified law enforcement agencies to let them know that some people might have paid — which officers can confirm through a check of the records — but not have received their new tabs to stick on their plates.
Officials said typical registration renewals are now largely processing on schedule. But for more specific issues, some customers were still being told this week that they’d need to come back after licensing offices had figured out another glitch in the system.
Carol Snell went to the Scott County customer service center in Shakopee on Monday to renew her specialty plates, something that usually takes about 10 minutes and costs $14. This time, she was there for 45 minutes and went home empty-handed after the licensing workers told her they’d have to charge her $100 instead of $14 — and that they probably couldn’t do it, even if she was willing to pay the extra money.
“They said to come back when it was fixed,” she said, “and they thought it would be fixed by Friday.”
Snell reported her experience to a comment page launched by the Minnesota House of Representatives to monitor problems, and received two calls promising that the state was working to resolve the problem.
Rep. Dave Baker, R-Willmar, helped set up the page and has been tracking the comments that show up there on a daily basis. He said he appreciates the work of state DVS officials and local registrars to tackle the bulk of the problems, but is frustrated that more bugs remain. For now, he said the focus should be on getting the system fully operational.
But in the future, potentially in next year’s legislative session, Baker said he wants lawmakers to take a closer look at what went wrong and what needs to be improved for future updates to the MNLARS system, including the issuance of driver’s licenses.
The rollout has been delayed for several years. It was initially scheduled to be done in 2014, but much of it is not yet online. Baker said the state has spent $90 million so far on the effort. More significant updates are coming in the next few years, including to the system that processes driver’s licenses.
“I think the Department of Public Safety was feeling the pressure of: Nine years and $90 million later, we had to pick a date and we had to go,” he said. “But the problem was this was not ready, and is still not ready.”
DPS spokesman Doug Neville noted that some of the deputy registrar’s offices where many of the problems have been reported may have been more prepared than others — the result of the fact that they are private businesses.
“Those offices have varying business practices and may have had different experiences with the rollout of the new MNLARS system,” he said.
Neville noted that the Driver and Vehicle Services Division has processed 614,066 registration renewals and 185,160 title transactions through the new system since the rollout began.
He said that’s about 20 percent more than was averaged under the old system, “demonstrating that the new system can handle the volume.”