Thursday, October 28, 2004

A D.C. Council member with oversight of the Department of Motor Vehicles said yesterday that she wants to know why printer malfunctions are keeping thousands of motorists from receiving vehicle-registration renewal notices and why the department has done nothing to notify residents.

“That’s unconscionable,” said Carol Schwartz, who chairs the council’s Committee on Public Works and the Environment. “If there was a problem that existed, people should have been notified. I think it’s very disappointing.”

Mrs. Schwartz, an at-large Republican, said she already had called DMV Director Anne C. Witt for an explanation.

The Washington Times reported yesterday that an ongoing problem with printers in the department’s 301 C St. NW headquarters corrupted batches of renewal notifications in recent months, subjecting vehicle owners to $100 fines.

The printers are part of a system that automatically generates 60-day renewal notices each night.

Kwame Brown last month won the Democratic nomination for an at-large council seat on a platform that included the promise of more effective and efficient city services.

He said he sympathizes with residents whose registrations expired because they received no notice and did not check their windshield registration stickers for expiration dates.

Mr. Brown, whose primary win virtually assures him of victory in next week’s election, also said that $100 is a lot for a family to pay, especially if the government is at fault.

“People want the basics of the city to work,” he said.

Miss Witt acknowledged the printer problem, but she said she was uncertain of how many people had been affected. She said that the notices were not a “legal requirement” but that she believed they were essential for good customer service.

Miss Witt said she told employees in the department’s Bureau of Traffic Adjudication to cancel tickets issued to vehicle owners whose registration lapsed because they did not get a notice.

DMV employees said the problem has affected as many as 50 percent of the vehicle owners who were supposed to receive the 60-day notifications before their registrations expired.

A typical notice lists the costs of renewing a vehicle registration, including the amount for outstanding tickets. It also provides the vehicle owner with payment options. D.C. records show that there are 241,600 registered vehicles in the city, so an estimated 40,000 could have been up for one- or two-year renewal in the past two months.

D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams said yesterday that improving the DMV has been an “ongoing challenge” and he gave Miss Witt his unqualified support.

“I think she’s doing a remarkable job in transforming that agency. I do believe that,” he said. “Have there been problems? Yes. And she’s worked hard to identify them.”

Customers at the DMV have long complained about wait times and poor service despite efforts to upgrade the computer systems and facilities. An inspection station on West Virginia Avenue Northeast that was supposed to open a year ago remains unfinished because of a legal dispute with the contractor that was hired to build the facility and then fired.

The DMV, which had 365 employees and an operating budget of more than $40 million for fiscal 2005, has also been plagued by scandals involving ticket-fixing and illegal resale of temporary plates.

City Administrator Robert C. Bobb made DMV one of his first targets for reform last year when he took the job in September 2003. In January, he and Miss Witt rolled out a new “one-done” service philosophy that was created to expand services at motor-vehicle locations and cut in half by winter the number of in-person visits.

“To see us going backwards instead of forwards is really disappointing,” Mrs. Schwartz said.

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