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'It was very emotional': Local DMV contends with state computer foul-up

A sign in the door of the Brainerd License Office asking for customers' patience with the state's new Minnesota Licensing and Registration System computer system is pictured Wednesday. The sloth is a reference to a joke from the film "Zootopia," when Department of Motor Vehicles workers are all sloths and move comically slow. Zach Kayser/Brainerd Dispatch1 / 2
Theresa Stocco works Wednesday at the Brainerd License Office. Stocco and the rest of the clerks there have been contending with the state's flawed rollout of the new Minnesota Licensing and Registration System computer system for issuing vehicle titles, licenses and other documents. Zach Kayser/Brainerd Dispatch2 / 2

The "utter failure of a rollout" began in July. On Monday came the apologies.

"As the Commissioner of Public Safety I apologize to you and to the people of Minnesota and to our stakeholders and business partners," said Commissioner Mona Dohman, who oversees the state's vehicle registrations, drivers licenses and other related areas. "We'll do better."

Dohman was apologizing for the trouble-ridden debut of the Minnesota Licensing and Registration System, a $90 million computer system for managing vehicle licenses and registrations.

On Monday afternoon, Dohman and other officials involved in the MNLARS rollout faced criticism at a legislative committee from lawmakers in both parties, such as Rep. Brian Daniels, R-Faribault, who called it an "utter failure," but also from Minnesota residents affected by the "glitches."

Sitting in the audience at the meeting was Donny Vosen of the Brainerd License Office. The privately run office has been confronted head-on with the maddening issues of the new system. To help get in front of customer frustrations, the Brainerd office posted a sign at every clerk station, featuring the sloth Department of Motor Vehicles workers from the animated Disney movie "Zootopia."

"Please be patient," the signs state. "The state has a new system, sometimes it's cumbersome and s..l..o..w..."

Far from soothing Vosen's concerns, the legislative hearing Monday only made him more frustrated with the state.

A number of critical factors contributed to the botched rollout, Vosen said. For one, the state put the new system in play in July, one of the busiest times of year for the license offices. It also did testing of MNLARS in-house rather than getting outside eyes on the new program. Officials mostly ignored input from the hundreds of deputy registrars—local-level license officials—from across the state, he added.

The result is a buggy, work-intensive system with which local workers can't edit—if they type an "I" instead of an "L," they have to start the document over from scratch. MNLARS uses what Vosen called a "microfont," so clerks have to magnify the page if they want to read what they're working on. Overtime is "through the roof," he said.

"It's been very hard on my staff," Vosen said. "But the public has been fantastic."

Vosen's office has come up with workarounds for the MNLARS glitches, and Vosen also praised Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka's efforts to get the issue solved in St. Paul. But the clock is still ticking. Sooner or later, Vosen acknowledged, customers' patience will run out. Since MNLARS' late July debut, consumers at many license bureau stations have experienced waits of as long as two hours.

The buggy system has directly impacted the Brainerd License office revenue, since the workers waive license fees when they're forced to issue temporary licenses instead of real ones, Vosen said.

"Brainerd is a growing area, so hopefully we can handle this hit," Vosen said. "But for how long can handle the hit? I don't know."

That, combined with the emotional stress of having to redo frustrating work over and over, is wearing the office thin.

"It was very emotional," Vosen said. "It's hard not to show your frustration with the system in front of the customer."

Registration problems

An update planned for later this month is supposed to improve electronic title registration and calculating costs, along with other system improvements. Later this year the state plans another major update addressing a variety of rarer cases, including motorcycle plates, law enforcement memorial plates and a new electronic vehicle surcharge.

But looming over all of this is a big deadline for next year.

That's because the second half of the MNLARS is supposed to go online next year: drivers licenses. That 2018 software upgrade could come right as hundreds of thousands of Minnesotans try to upgrade their licenses to comply with federal Real ID requirements. The state issued 1.8 million driver's licenses and identification cards in 2016.

David Montgomery of the St. Paul Pioneer Press contributed to this story.

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