Getting your car registration updated in Ada County used to take just a few minutes – but that changed overnight last fall.
On October 13, the Idaho Transportation Department instituted new software, called the GEM system, in assessor’s offices statewide. Within hours of instituting the change, transactions slowed to a crawl. It took 20 minutes for registration changes that used to take five and issues with certain records now required phone calls to ITD headquarters with lengthy hold times.
Since then, the lines stretched on and complaints started flooding into assessor’s offices around the state. The bulk of the issues concentrated in the three largest counties: Ada, Canyon, and Kootenai. Ada County Assessor Bob McQuade called this one of the toughest times weathered in his nearly three decades in office.
“It’s the most difficult problem I’ve had in my 27 years as assessor,” he said. “We’ve had things that were difficult, but they lasted two weeks, three weeks, or four weeks. Never for six months.”
What’s causing the problem?
These problems stem from a few changes the software made to the registration process.
McQuade said this new software system is part of ITD’s effort to build “one person, one record.” This means all of the information the records for driver’s licenses kept by the Sheriff’s Offices match what is kept for vehicle registration by the assessor’s offices. In the new system, if there is a slight irregularity between records it would require a phone call to ITD to correct it.
Due to an influx of demand at ITD and losses in staff at the state level, these phone calls would take a lengthy amount of time. Long wait times caused ITD to allow the assessor’s offices to make the changes themselves for a few months, but this recently changed back to requiring a phone call to ITD.
One silver lining to this issue? McQuade anticipates things will move much quicker once more Idahoans have gone through the new system and all of their records are correctly matched.
Another major contributing factor is the paperwork required to register a new vehicle. Under the old system, when someone purchased a car at a dealership all of the information would be sent over to the assessor’s office for input before the customer came to get the registration. Under the new system, workers must enter all of this information manually while the customer was waiting.
Recent changes from the state on how long someone has to register a new car exacerbated the problem at the assessor’s office. Prior to the new software being introduced, purchasers had 3 days to register their vehicle, but this was changed to 30 days in the fall. Sometime later, McQuade said the state shortened the length of time back to 3 days. This was once again extended to 30 days after it caused long lines.
The slowdowns had caused an outsize impact on customers, who were forced to sign up at the office and return hours later for their appointment, but it impacted staff too.
The Ada Assessor’s Office had a 40% staff turnover rate since the new software system was implemented six months ago. McQuade said the majority of customers have been patient and kind with employees, but there have been instances of extreme frustration from customers and it had its toll on the clerks. In order to keep up with the workload, they were not allowed to take breaks beyond a 30-minute lunch throughout the day.
To keep up with the workload, McQuade’s office is hiring 10 additional clerks. But, as they were trying to fill the new positions, another four employees quit. Luckily, he said a new crop of employees is in training and should be hitting the counters in the coming weeks. By July, he estimates the wait times will decrease thanks to some changes and additional manpower.
“It’s been a bumpy road, but I can see the paved highway ahead,” he said.
The extra staff won’t come cheap, though.
The new positions are estimated to cost the county $600,000 in unanticipated costs in fiscal year 2022. Prior to the Gem system being installed, Ada County used a $2.85 admin fee to help cover staffing. But, due to the increased numbers of employees needed the county is considering upping the fee between $5.50 and $9 depending on potential changes made by ITD.
A light at the end of the tunnel?
It’s been a painful few months at the assessor’s office, but McQuade is optimistic for better things ahead.
On top of the increased manpower, he said the state will make several policy changes soon that will reduce the workload at his office. First, his office is in the middle of a six-month pilot program where ITD picked up registrations mailed in, completed online and by dealers to help the three largest counties get through the crush of demand with the new system. If it works, ITD might continue completing those duties as it moves toward a more centralized system.
As of June 1, people who purchase cars at dealerships will be able to fill out their own paperwork online prior to coming to the assessor’s office to save time. And by October 1, a new state law will allow all of this paperwork and titling to be completed at the dealer. This is allowed in other states, and McQuade told the Ada County Commissioners earlier this week it has a high participation rate because of the convenience.
Lines putting pressure on local officials
McQuade isn’t the only one concerned about the wait times.
The Ada County Commission held several meetings with McQuade on the situation in recent weeks. They also met with ITD officials on Monday where they expressed a desire to work together to resolve the situation and educate the public on the cause for the wait times.
“I don’t want to put you guys on the spot, but we’re on the spot,” Commissioner Kendra Kenyon told ITD officials during the meeting. “We are the elected officials getting blamed for this so I want some assurance and some understanding of how we got to where we are and how we can help in the best of our capacity to lessen this pain.”
During the meeting, DMV Administrator Alberto Gonzalez called the delays “very painful” for the state and they have been working hard to resolve the issues. He pointed to the department’s funding of overtime to help assessor’s offices catch up on dealer title work to keep wait times down.
He said ITD’s goal is to move toward a system where customers can complete more of these services online, through the mail or wherever they wish more quickly. Over time, he said this will help save the counties because fewer positions will be required, but the transition is stressing the system now.
“We’re trying to leave behind the stereotype of the DMV with the sloth and all of those things,” he said. “Even when I moved here in 2004 I went to the Ada County DMV and the experience was so quick, but now that we’ve added so many complexities to this and with the growth we need to do this better.”