Revving up the Registry

Ah, the Registry. It’s the state agency everyone loves to hate. But Massachusetts drivers may just have to start looking for a new public-sector scapegoat. That is, if the new Registrar of Motor Vehicles, on the job since September, can do the governmental equivalent of pulling a rabbit out of a hat.

Daniel A. Grabauskas, coming off a 19-month stint as director of the Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation, won the dubious honor of being Gov. Paul Cellucci’s pick to reform the $61 million agency, following a summer of outcry. The Legislature’s Joint Committee on Public Safety blasted the Registry on customer service, and State Auditor Joe DeNucci issued a stinging interim audit, saying the RMV needed a “complete overhaul.”

It’s hardly the first time the Registry’s been under the gun, with the registrar usually drawing the fire on himself. In the early ’90s, Registrar Jerold Gnazzo’s tenure was plagued by controversy ranging from questionable hiring practices to the unauthorized use of repair plates. Former governor William Weld took away Gnazzo’s chauffeur and forbade the use of car phones by Registry employees other than Gnazzo himself, after reports of abuse of that privilege. Allegations also surfaced that auto-body repair shops owned by Gnazzo’s wife had benefited financially from a state contract. Grabauskas’s immediate predecessor, former Melrose mayor Richard D. Lyons, resigned last summer rather than catch more flak over such decisions as closing the Registry’s busy Lowell office and merging it with the one in Lawrence.

Just what is it about the Registry that makes it so prone to bureaucratic bumbling? Deirdre Cummings, consumer program director at the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group in Boston, says it’s because the Registry is a political step-child. “[The Registry] has been continuously overlooked and sort of put at the end of the line,” says Cummings.

Well, the Registry has Dan Grabauskas’s full attention, and his bull-by-the-horns approach has already impressed some pretty tough customers: Beacon Hill lawmakers and at least some Registry patrons. Though he has since engaged in a war of words with the Registry workers’ union, in November Senate Ways and Means Chairman Mark Montigny (D-New Bedford), proclaimed from the Senate floor: “I have a great deal of hope and faith for this registrar. As an administrator, I think he will do the job.” And patrons interviewed during a recent lunch hour at the office in downtown Boston seemed pleasantly surprised by their Registry experience.

Diana Pomeroy, 30, lives in Hav-erhill but works downtown. In the past, she’s waited three or four hours at the Registry in Lawrence, so when she went to the Washington Street office in Chinatown to register a used car she’d just bought, she braced for a two-hour layover. But instead, she was in and out in about 35 minutes–“much better than expected,” she said. The employees, she said, “were polite, which was nice.”

To be sure, not every customer has such a smooth ride. On a recent Friday afternoon, the Watertown office was jammed, but had only 10 of 14 work stations open. To accommodate a crowd roughly 80-strong at the 5 p.m. closing, workers stayed another 45 minutes.

According to one “runner” who makes trips to the RMV for a car dealership on Cape Cod, Registry encounters vary according to which branch you’re in, when you’re there, and who’s behind the counter that day. This professional line-stander, who did not want to give his name, said he had had a “horrible” experience a couple of weeks before at the Plymouth office. With just one window out of four open to serve the midday crowd, he was there for more than an hour and a half, he said.

The 36-year-old Grabauskas knows he has a tough nut to crack. He says he has “zero tolerance” for inefficiency, discourtesy, or untidiness at the Registry and has started cleaning up and re-painting service centers. Long waits are the agency’s biggest problem, he acknowledges. After seven weeks on the job, Grabauskas had shifted enough workers around to increase staff time at service windows by 24 percent. But recruitment of new employees is hampered by a strong job market, he says, as well as the Registry’s low pay. (Window clerks max out at $25,000 a year.) Turnover is high, with workers in the Registry’s central phone center staying less than a year. The agency’s antique computers, which date from the early ’80s, and an anemic phone system are other key reasons why waits are long and customers can’t get through by telephone. Seven out of eight callers to the Registry get a busy signal.

Wait times average an hour. Seven of eight callers get a busy signal.
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This year’s budget, however, has Grabauskas paying for the Registry’s past sins, to the tune of a $1.5 million cut. Gov. Cellucci last month offered help in the form of a $16.6 million request to the Legislature that would pay for a new phone system and computers, among other improvements.

Grabauskas says that, in the long run, getting people to do their Registry business by mail, over the phone, and on the agency’s award-winning web site (www.state.ma.us/rmv) “can reduce the need for the public to use the branches.” But, he adds, “We are so far from there yet. We’ve got wait times on average near about an hour–that’s an average. At different times of year, it’s two hours.” Grabauskas would like to see the Registry look more like Virginia’s motor vehicle agency. That state, which is close to Massachusetts in population size, has roughly twice as many branch offices and employees to take care of licenses and tags as the Bay State does. And–get this–a Virginian’s average wait time at the Department of Motor Vehicles is only 7 minutes, 13 seconds.