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County Board approves boost to licensing center staff

In an effort to alleviate slow processing times stemming from a malfunctioning state computer system, Washington County Board has approved allocating $178,000 from the emergency fund to add several new staff members at licensing centers.

At the May 15 meeting, commissioners unanimously approved a request to hire eight employees for 6.5 full-time-equivalent positions from Washington County Director of Property Records and Taxpayer Services Jennifer Wagenius. Wagenius said the additional staff at the county's three centers in Woodbury, Stillwater and Forest Lake will alleviate an intense workload that has led to an "extremely high rate" of turnover among her staff and hour-long waits for customers at DMVs, with about 10 percent leaving without services.

The issues, she said, are stemming from a state computer system for processing vehicle title and tab transactions called MNLARS, which was launched last summer.

Deputy registrars across the state have said the faulty system has slowed down their processing rate, causing them to lose money. Wagenius said processing times for vehicle registration at her centers has slowed down by 60 to 80 percent.

"Without additional FTE it will be difficult to continue operating the centers that serve so many in Washington County," Wagenius said at the meeting. "The problems with this system have degraded our service levels and created a very challenging and stressful work environment for our employees."

She presented her request after consulting with the county's Personnel Board, which recommended the board approve additional funding.

County commissioners expressed solidarity with the licensing centers, stressing that the slow-down was of no fault of their own, and that the need to add staff — regardless of potential state funding from various bills in the Legislature — was urgent.

"To have that much turnover is completely unacceptable ... It didn't start with a failure at our part. We have to be nimble, identify a crisis situation when it's happening, and I think this is an appropriate action to take," Commissioner Lisa Weik said, adding she has not heard objections from her constituents on the matter.

"I wholeheartedly support this, and we gotta be like a dog on the bone to get the state to support this next year," Commissioner Gary Kriesel said.

State funding uncertain

The decision came days before Gov. Mark Dayton vetoed a bill that would provide $9 million to vehicle license operators across the state. The money would help reimburse costs for the 170 deputy registrars, who have said they've lost at least twice that much.

Under the bill, Washington County was projected to receive $290,000 in 2018.

Dayton vetoed the bill Saturday night, saying that while he supported funding the centers, he would not approve the bill because it didn't include money to fix MNLARS, for which he had requested the state provide between $22 million and $28 million.

Earlier in the day, Dayton urged lawmakers to pass a different bill which included money to reimburse the licensing centers and fix MNLARS, but Republican lawmakers refused.

Republicans immediately attempted to organize an override for the veto. With overwhelming bipartisan support, the bill received 101 votes in the House, meeting the criterion for an override. But when the proposal came after 10 p.m. Saturday, many of the Democrats who originally voted for the bill voted against the override, which received 79 votes.

Funding for the centers is also provided in a separate, 990-page bill, but Dayton has said he will veto this bill for reasons unrelated to the MNLARS issue.

Without the funding, deputy registrars have said many license centers will reduce hours or close, prompting Minnesotans to drive farther for services or wait longer in line.

Dayton has said he would not call a special session.

Commissioner Lisa Weik said the uncertainty over whether the county will receive funding from the state has reaffirmed her support to use contingency funding.

"I'm thinking, this is so big and complicated ... and what if none of that (funding) comes through and then we have people leaving?" she said. "We have to conduct business."

Weik said if the county does not receive state funding anytime soon, they will build the positions into next year's budget, for which discussions begin this August.

While the licensing centers are not a mandated function of the county, Weik said, she has heard from constituents that they value having a local center.

Wagenius said that while the 6.5 full-time-equivalent positions will not set her centers back to pre-MNLARS processing times, the support should make a noticeable improvement in wait times for customers.

The help comes at an important time, she said, because this fall the centers will begin using a new driver's licensing software and begin offering Real IDs, which require lengthy paperwork. She said she does not yet have exact estimates on how this could affect transaction times.

"Our hope is with the additional staffing we'll be able to serve our customers much more quickly, have their needs met and get them on their way out the door," she said.

Dave Orrick from the St. Paul Pioneer Press, a Forum News Service partner, contributed to this report.

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