Lawmakers grilled the head of the state’s beleaguered Motor Vehicle Commission on Monday as they sought answers for long lines and backlogs — and a fee increase now looming for many motorists.
Challenges the agency has been facing after a lengthy, statewide closure brought on by the coronavirus pandemic have become notorious on social media and inspired recent changes in state law that was designed to ease lines.
But Democrats and Republicans on the Assembly Budget Committee wanted to know if more can be done to help those standing the in lines, questioning MVC chief administrator Sue Fulton as she appeared before them for the first time since Gov. Phil Murphy put forward a new state budget plan last month.
“The public’s perception is that nobody cares about them,” said Assemblywoman Nancy Munoz (R-Union).
What’s up with higher fees?
They also wanted to know more about a proposed fee increase for vehicle registrations that would be enacted statewide as part of Murphy’s budget proposal for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.
The proposed increase will raise $5 million for State Police programs, according to budget documents. But Assemblyman Harold Wirths (R-Sussex) took issue with hiking any of the agency’s charges, no matter the purpose, at a time when the pandemic continues to strain its customer-service operations.
“Not only are people getting horrific service, but the fees are actually going up,” said Wirths. “That just doesn’t seem right to me during these times.”
With roughly 40 outlets across New Jersey, the Motor Vehicle Commission is one of the state agencies that regularly interacts with millions of residents as they seek a new driver’s license, renew an old one, register or inspect a vehicle or look to use any one of a number of required services.
The MVC is also a key agency for the state budget, since it is regularly used to subsidize general state operations.
But this year, the MVC has faced regular criticism as it has tried to work through a backlog of demand caused in part by a roughly four-month closure that occurred due to the pandemic. Long lines have built up since the summer at many agencies after outlets were eventually reopened in July.
Take a number for service
Fulton told lawmakers a new external-ticketing system has been created to make services run more efficiently as outlets work through backlogs. State law was also recently changed to push back some deadlines to ease the demand for in-person services.
And Fulton pushed back against the social-media posts by suggesting they don’t always tell the whole story. The agency’s outlets cannot be overcrowded inside due to the pandemic and restrictions on indoor capacity that were ordered by the governor. But that means people have to largely wait outside to maintain safety and public health, and the external-ticketing service is working, she said.
“Lines outside are not necessarily a sign of dysfunction inside,” Fulton said.
And while many services can be accessed online through the agency’s website, some services, such as obtaining a license for the first time or completing a private-vehicle sale, must still be done in-person.
“It’s very hard to predict demand, but we know those are problem areas that we haven’t solved,” she said.
Wirths and other lawmakers wanted to know whether everything is being done to improve customer service, including exhausting employee overtime.
Downtime and overtime
“You had four months of downtime,” Wirths said. “This is something you could have really planned for.”
Fulton said her agency is already maximizing overtime rules under its current labor contract. Funding for more employees is also being requested as part of the $32.4 billion budget that Murphy proposed in late August.
After being asked if there were things that could have been done differently, Fulton conceded there was a learning curve coming out of the lengthy shutdown.
“If I knew then what we know now, then we would have started the external-ticketing system sooner,” Fulton said as one example.
“We’ve learned something every week,” Fulton said. “We’ve learned a lot.”
But lawmakers also sought more information during the hearing on the proposed registration-fee increase.
Fulton said she had few details about the fee increase since the funding would not be used by her agency.
Higher fees at MVC will help fund state police
Reached after the hearing ended, Murphy spokesman Jerrel Harvey said the $1 increase would be added to other fees that are already assessed on registrations that help raise funds for the state police. The additional $5 million would help pay for equipment, recruit classes, vehicles and the Medevac emergency helicopter response service, Harvey said.
During the hearing, several lawmakers brought up other new charges that New Jersey motorists are getting hit with amid the pandemic, including higher tolls on the state’s toll roads that just went into effect this month, and an increase in the state’s gas tax that starts Oct. 1.
“I know the fee doesn’t go to you, but your agency is going to be collecting it and I just don’t think it’s right or proper to be increasing fees (when) the customer service is in a pretty rough time period,” Wirths told Fulton during the hearing.