DMV’s virus response lacks urgency

For the past three months, Chautauqua County residents have had to patiently navigate the state’s “Phase In” process. This Phase 4 process has been frustrating and inconsistent in terms of what and why things are or are not “phased in.” For example, one can be in a Walmart amongst hundreds of others, but can’t eat in a restaurant amongst maybe 25 people. Trying to find this balance between public safety, while at the same time trying to regain some semblance of “life as we knew it” has certainly been a challenge.

Our governor has been challenging New Yorkers since the middle of March to be intelligent, use good common sense, and take all necessary precautions to protect ourselves as well as others; intimating in each Corona Virus press conference the dutiful slogan, “We’re ALL in this together.”

I have generally gone along with this “corona motto.” I am an educator and coach. The “all together” premise is certainly one I have utilized with students and athletes over the years.

What has moved me to comment, however, is the hypocritical and inconsistent application of such a slogan especially in regards to Chautauqua County DMV offices. No government agency has been less helpful and less supportive of this slogan in the past three months as the Chautauqua County Department of Motor Vehicles.

If you turned 16 years old after March 16 or had completed your driving hours to attain a state driver’s license … you have been out of luck. Buying a car? Well, you almost had to buy from a dealer or else registering a new car and getting it on the road would roughly take up to two weeks: three to seven days for your paperwork to be processed from the “magic” silver box out front and then another 3-4 days to receive plates and paperwork back through the mail. And by the way, that was “if” there were no problems with the paperwork. If you are like me, you need the person at the counter to help make sure all the bureaucratic paperwork is completed correctly.

On Monday, June 22, the DMV “opened” for some services. Sixteen-year-olds from across the county lined up, melting in the heat, anxious to take their permit tests all last week. Meanwhile, the magic, silver box kept filling up throughout the week with all the other services that were still not provided in person.

On June 27, the OBSERVER ran a brief article explaining that the Chautauqua County DMV had to totally shut down for the near future because of a directive from the Governor’s office and the fact that they were unable to handle to amount paperwork that needed to be processed. The directive . . . they must have a functional online reservation system to combat the throngs of people languishing in long lines outside the respective DMV offices. Waiting until NOW to address this is inexcusable. My question — and I’m sure I represent many others throughout the county by asking it, “What have you been doing for the past three months to prepare to better serve the people of this County for the inevitable “new normal?”

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, keeping his politics aside, has consistently stated that New Yorkers had to seize the opportunity during this extremely challenging time to rethink and reinvent ways that our society does business.

Because our lives are going to be forever changed by this pandemic, the way we do things has to adapt and change as well. I ask the county officials that have anything to do with the DMV, if they were listening to this directive. I look around and see school districts reinventing the way they educate and service families (beyond instruction). I see the healthcare system: hospitals, urgent care facilities, and private medical offices and the thousands of people that work in those fields still delivering great care to our residents. Small private businesses, despite the huge economic hit many are taking, doing whatever they can within the state’s directives to service our residents in the best way they can. Many probably wishing they could do more, but dutifully following the state’s guidelines of reopening. And then there is the DMV . . .

I may be wrong, but isn’t the DMV essential? Sure, the governor extended all license and registration expirations and one could always go online and take care of some of those necessary things, but that requires technology and access. As an educator in a local county school district, you find out very quickly how many people and families do not have some of the basic tools for communication and access that we probably assume everyone has to have at this point. A sobering truth probably lost on many officials in government who never have to face such realities.

Another reality is the fact that the DMV has not really changed its process in decades. How many places does one still “take a number” and wait in line? The local butcher? I first entered a Chautauqua County DMV in 1994 and quite frankly the last time I had to, was in 2018 and you know what . . . the same process. I guess 24 years of no change in process or service is fine if the service is “gold star”. You know the saying, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Well, this IS NOT the case. The DMV is a broken and dated system and process. Realizing this weekend that maybe an appointment system is needed is 10, 20, 30 years too late. I propose the following:

1. More workers. If you have five windows then five tellers. Two tellers dedicated to appointments made by phone or online. Two tellers dedicated to only walk in overflow. One teller for anything extraneous or time consuming.

2. One person is needed to answer the phone and handle ALL call in appointment bookings and answer any questions.

3. One person who handles nothing but permit testing and anything related to new drivers.

Chautauqua County has complained about staffing shortages as a problem. What is the problem? Not enough people want full time County employment? Are too many workers choosing to stay home and get paid during this pandemic? Does our county budget not have enough money for the DMV budget line?

The bottom line is the fact that the pandemic has exposed many things about our society.

Some of them have resulted in amazing people doing amazing things despite the challenges, and those positive changes and results will carry on long after COVID-19 has loosened its grip on our daily lives. The Chautauqua County DMV, however, has been exposed as a process and system that needs a major overhaul.

The sad truth is unfortunately it took a worldwide pandemic to show this. I only hope the county officials that we vote for and supply our tax dollars to, will make the necessary changes to make the DMV a better and more functional branch of government service; because if I took a poll of residents in this county, more would probably choose root canal than going to the DMV.

So County Executive PJ Wendel and Clerk Larry Barmore, I remind you that we are “all in this together” and I challenge you to drastically rethink and reinvent the DMV, because it is broke and needs fixing.

Kevin Rice is a Silver Creek resident.


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