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Friday 10 January 2003

Saving Money at the Virginia DMV

The Washington Post is running a story about how the Virginia government is tying itself in knots about budget cuts that have resulted in the total closure of some of the state’s DMV offices, and the closure of the remaining offices on Wednesdays.

These closures have resulted in public outcry. It took hours to get anything done at most Virginia DMV offices before, and now that most offices have, under normal conditions, lines out the door, it’s become impossible in some areas to take care of DMV business. More frustrating, perhaps, is that once you reach the head of the line, the process is very efficient; so you’ve waited for three or four hours to conduct a transaction that only takes five minutes to carry out.

As I said, the public are not amused, and the legislature and governor have vowed to re-open the 12 offices closed several months ago. There has been, in turn, complaining about this from other people and organizations at the public trough:

But other constituencies that have borne budget reductions are infuriated by the emphasis on DMV.

“It’s just disturbing to me that we are so concerned about the length of time someone has to take to get a driver’s license and at the same time we are losing apparent interest in how long it takes someone to graduate from college,” said Alan G. Merten, president of George Mason University, who said the school has lost $30 million in the last two years.

Caitlin Binning, interim deputy director of the Virginia chapter of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, said the “pain of waiting in line at the DMV is not equal to the pain that the people I care about go through when they have inadequate services.”

Mr. Merten and Ms. Binning seem not to care that postsecondary education and services for the mentally ill can (and are) provided by institutions that are not part of the Virginia governmental apparatus. However, it’s impossible to get a Virginia driver’s license or to register a car with the state of Virginia — as required by law, if you live here — anywhere but at the Virginia DMV. Even the state seems to misunderstand this, though:

Virginia Transportation Secretary Whittington W. Clement told lawmakers that even with additional funding, Virginia’s DMV offices must continue to trim costs because they cannot afford the level of services that residents demand. Agency officials said new obligations, including handling voter registration and the administration of car-tax relief, have strained services. [emphasis added]

People don’t demand anything from the DMV. The DMV, rather, demands things from them. If you’re going to drive a car in Virginia, you have to deal with the DMV to obtain a driver’s license and to get license plates for your car. The state uses the threat of violence — they’ll put you in jail, ultimately, if you don’t obey — to compel you to obtain these things.

The people then, quite reasonably, expect the state to be able to handle this task — this task which it has created the necessity of — with dispatch. The state, of course, sees this expectation as a “demand”.

(And don’t give me any of this horseshit about driving being a “privilege”, not a “right”. If everyone in Virginia tomorrow refused to continue to exercise this “privilege”, the state’s economy would grind to a halt more or less instantly.)

What Whittington Clement means is that the Virginia DMV — the Virginia government — cannot afford to carry out its regulatory tasks.

“The personal service doesn’t come without a cost,” Clement told members of the House Transportation Committee. “We really need to change customer behavior to rely more on self-service options. We can’t do business in the future as we have in the past.”

Mr. Clement is here referring to various systems that allow you to transact DMV business without actually dealing with a human being. You can renew license plates and driver’s licenses, and do a certain number of other tasks, on the web or by using an ATM-like machine at most DMV offices. The trouble is, you can’t do everything through one of these systems, and using them requires that you have a PIN issued by the DMV and mailed to your address of record. If you have no address of record (or if you haven’t previously applied for a PIN and then remembered what it was), you can’t use the machine. The ATMs won’t accept a barcoded Virginia driver’s license — issued by the DMV, mind you — as identification, even though the humans inside will.

The DMV doesn’t (or likely can’t, by statute) allow for any less certainty or completeness in its tasks in order to save money. The DMV wants to be able to do precisely the same job it’s done in the past, and to do it for less money; 100% of the savings will come from forcing you, the hapless citizen, to put up with worse service.

If the state were truly interested in solving the problem — that there isn’t enough money to run the DMV — they would issue license plates that never expired, would turn the driver’s-license-renewal process into a basic verification that you’re still alive (it’s not much more than that now, honestly), and would scrap any regulation they do that you can’t do over the web or one of their ATMs. They could then close every DMV office, and nobody would care.

What they’re interested in doing, though, is maintaining their level of control (admittedly, not that great in Virginia) while saving money. They know, on some level, that this can’t be done, but bureaucratic inertia being what it is, they’re going to subject everyone to a lot of pain before either accepting the inevitable or finding some money under the state sofa cushions.

Posted by tino at 14:30 10.01.03
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Good stuff. I never seem to be able to come up with any intelligent comments in reply to your posts. Maybe because they make so much SENSE all I can do is NOD. If ONLY they would do what you said in your next-to-last paragraph.

I think in AZ your driver’s license doesn’t expire for, literally, decades. I wonder what the DMV is like there.

Posted by: Evelynne at January 13, 2003 09:31 PM

I hope DMV is not a vehicle to justify tax increases by infuriating the public.

If you look at the whole picture…

We voted (?) for G W Bush, and tax cuts got passed. States got less money, but have been getting more mandates since 9/11. Did he cut taxes for working American people? or Did he drive the states off the the edge of the cliff to raise taxes or cut essential services? Just a good old country-boy that you’s like to have barbeque with…, right?

Dubya proudly said, “Elections have consequences”. He really meant, “the tax cuts have consequences, too!”. Voters beware in 2004!

Posted by: Yong at June 30, 2003 11:33 AM