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Car dealers, owners see vehicle title registrations pile up

Leia Bettis, Julie Vietmeier and Keith Franke hold about half of East Side Auto's boxes filled with titles waiting to be registered. Katie Nelson / RiverTown Multimedia

For weeks, boxes filled to the brim with titles waiting to be registered lined the floor of East Side Auto in St. Paul Park.

Staff eventually moved them to filing cabinets: they wouldn't be dealt with any time soon.

Between phone calls from customers checking the status of their titles, staff send out what may be the second or third temporary title, with the dealer once again eating the cost to mail them.

This cycle has been continuing for nearly three months, ever since the new Minnesota Licensing and Registration System launched.

Known as MNLARS, the new $90 million computer system replaces the previous 30-year-old program. Department of Public Safety officials have said it was not fully complete when it launched, leading to both small bugs and larger issues.

Driver and Vehicle Services and licensing centers are still facing minor to major inconveniences as they continue to learn the new system, taking longer with customers for transactions and dealing with some complete standstills in the computer system.

Customers have been over- and under-charged for services under MNLARS, some have been pulled over or ticketed and loans are in jeopardy.

Rep. Dave Baker, R-Willmar, chairs the Select Committee in Technology and Government Responsiveness committee that was launched last session. As the system continues to be updated, he's seen many of the issues resolved, except when it comes to vehicle titles.

"Right now the biggest crisis in the MNLARS system would be getting printed certificate of title out to dealers," Baker said.

Jennifer Wagenius, Washington County Director of Property Records and Taxpayer Services, noticed the same trend. She said the hour-long wait times customers encountered after the July launch have faded away, and staff have found workarounds to operate the MNLARS system. The biggest problem they still face are titles connected to special license plates.

Michele Mowska, deputy registrar at the Red Wing License Center, said their office has also found tricks to deal with the many glitches in the system, but many processes go much slower.

When titles are able to be processed, Mowska said it takes upward of twice the time it used to. It can range from difficult to impossible to register titles to those vehicles with specialty or vanity plates.

"If we can't do it, (we) say to have the customer check back in a couple weeks," Mowska said.

This often happens over and over again as the system continuously cannot process it.

All they can do, Mowska and other deputy registrars have said, is ask people to be patient.

East Side Auto's Leia Bettis, who handles the titles, can attest that patience is running thin with many customers who have been waiting since July or August for their titles.

To keep drivers legally on the road, dealers provide 21-day permits. Providing those permits has been "consuming" Bettis' day, she said, along with answering phone calls to try and explain why vehicle titles aren't coming in yet.

East Side Auto has six file boxes — and counting — filled with vehicle titles that haven't been processed yet. Bettis is used to dealing with 30 titles a day. Since the MNLARS launch, most days she doesn't receive any at all. They now have well over 500 titles to process once the system starts taking them.

"It's going to take the entire staff to get her out of this mess they created," Vietmeier said.

The DPS has said they have started printing titles.

"(Dealers) are being told they are printing three to five thousand titles a day, but dealers have not seen a thing," Baker said. "So if they're printing them, our folks aren't seeing them. And that's what is alarming."

Julie Vietmeier would guess she and her husband Tim's over 40-year-old business at East Side Auto has lost about $2,000 so far due to flaws in the MNLARS system.

"It's just sad to see that once again we've spent tens of millions on a system that was launched when it wasn't ready," Keith Franke, R-St. Paul Park said. "And it's costing people money and affecting people's businesses."

Vietmeier said it has also affected their sale numbers.

"We've lost business from out of state for sure," she said.

"The most frustrating part is that they think it's our fault," Bettis added.

When they do make a sale, Bettis said they tell customers right away that they will be back for another 21-day permit. The state has allowed dealers to provide two at once to the new vehicle owners — giving them 42 days — but Vietmeier said it needs to be lengthened to six months or a year to cut back on costs and staff time.

The effects just keep trickling down, she said.

There have been issues with loans and banks for both dealers and customers. Some people who bought their cars since July have started getting in accidents by now. Claims have been difficult without titles to prove ownership.

As updates keep coming out without fixing titling problems, Vietmeier said she's gotten nothing but "a headache and a stomachache."

"I don't even know if we'll ever see the light at the end of the tunnel," she said.

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