- The Washington Times - Friday, January 10, 2003

RICHMOND Following Gov. Mark R. Warner's promise to reopen 12 Department of Motor Vehicles branch offices, two top administrators said yesterday they cannot undo the Wednesday closings a major gripe among taxpayers.

"When we reopen these offices, they might look a little different," Ab Quillian, the DMV commissioner, said at a Senate Finance Committee hearing on transportation issues.

Mr. Warner's plan, announced Wednesday night during his State of the Commonwealth address, includes spending $6 million in funds from a Wall Street securities fraud settlement to reopen the 12 branches closed in October to help reduce a $1.2 billion budget deficit.

Mr. Quillian and Secretary of Transportation Whittington W. Clement said the branches would reopen no earlier than late February or early March.

They also said the Fair Oaks Mall and Warrenton branches will remain closed. However, Mr. Quillian said commonwealth and Fairfax officials were negotiating to find a location to replace the Fair Oaks branch.

Mr. Quillian and Mr. Clement provided no details about changes inside the branches, but repeatedly said the DMV must change with the times, which means more electronic and automated features and less one-on-one customer service.

"You go into a bank lobby and it is not the same as it was 10 years ago," Mr. Clement said. "We will have to help change customer behavior, so they will rely more on self-service options."

Mr. Warner, a Democrat, estimated last year that the shorter hours and closings would save more than $40 million. But customers were furious because without Wednesday hours they had to wait in long lines, occasionally in the rain and cold because lobbies were packed.

Mr. Clement said customers should still expect the long lines.

"That problem is not going to go away," he said.

Some state lawmakers said yesterday they were concerned about using the settlement money.

"What problems are we going to be facing if we use this one-time settlement?" asked Sen. Charles R. Hawkins, Pittsylvania Republican. "Are we putting these communities back in the same sort of turmoil they were in a year ago?"

The lawmakers also must pass Mr. Warner's budget, which includes using the settlement money, before the DMV branches are reopened.

Meanwhile, customers who want to avoid the lines can use the agency's Web site or the telephone for such transactions as renewing a driver's license or a vehicle registration. However, those who want a new license or new registration must go to a branch.

Mr. Quillian said the Warner administration is also looking at ways to promote vehicle registration at dealerships to eliminate customer visits to branches.

Still, state Sen. Charles J. Colgan, Prince William Democrat, said too many changes would defeat the purpose of reopening the branches.

"These reforms could cost more that doing [business] the way we have been doing it," he said.

Some customers, especially seniors, say they have little technical experience, so they are frustrated with the DMV's automated and Internet-related services.

In response, Mr. Quillian said the agency will have staffers in branches to help customers.

The governor's announcement about the potential reopening of the DMV offices took many lawmakers by surprise, since they were unaware the settlement money was available.

In November, Merrill Lynch agreed to the settlement over charges of providing tainted investment advice. The final negotiations with regards to the settlement and what Virginia would do with it were ironed out earlier this week.

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