Growing gridlock


By COLIN M. STEWART

Tribune-Herald staff writer

Stand-up comedian Dane Cook once posited that a thousand years from now, consumers would have their hearts’ every whim catered to instantly. But a trip to the driver’s licensing office would take nine seconds.

“Nine seconds? Come on!” people would say as they stood in line. “I gotta be at work in three seconds!” he said.

Nine seconds could very well seem like an eternity to the denizens of the year 3000, but for at least one man sitting outside the Hilo Drivers Licensing Office on Tuesday, that would have been an appealing alternative, indeed.

“They told me it’s going to be about two hours,” said Joe Aquino at around 10:45 a.m. He had already been waiting about 45 minutes to get a new state ID, and that was after first taking a detour to the State Office Building, where he was told that issuance of ID cards now fell under the jurisdiction of the county.

“I’m thinking they (the county driver’s licensing office) need more people at the windows. Now, I’m just sitting here. Waiting,” he said.

Aquino was not alone. He and about 40 other people were strewn about the courtyard outside the office, located within the Hawaii County Police Department complex off Kapiolani Street. There, they waited for their numbers to be called, which would then allow them to enter into the building where they would arrange themselves into new lines before talking with a clerk about their individual needs.

“I dread coming in to renew my license,” said 82-year-old Delbert Snedeker Sr. as he sat alongside the building waiting his turn. “The first card I got was when I was 15 years old. It’s changed a lot. It looks like I’m going to have a long wait.”

At the Hilo office and the four others across the island — including Kona, Pahoa, Waimea and Ka‘u (which operates part-time) — it’s been an uphill battle since the spring, both for residents and the county employees serving them, said Hawaii County Department of Finance Director Nancy Crawford. March 5 was when a new state law calling for more stringent “legal presence” documentation for all IDs went into action.

“Clearly, we have issues at the driver’s license office,” she said Wednesday. “… The process for getting a license is much stricter now.”

Hawaii counties were then asked to take on this month the responsibility from the Attorney General’s Office of issuing state ID cards. That, combined with the stricter documentation procedures, served to create a perfect storm, of sorts. Wait times went from 30 minutes to an average of about two hours in March. And in the last month, waits have climbed into the neighborhood of three hours, Crawford said.

“The Kona and Hilo offices each have four clerks whose primary function is issuing licenses and IDs,” she said. “They each also have a greeter outside, as well as two examiners, and they also take time when they aren’t giving exams to work the driver’s license windows issuing paperwork. There is also one other clerk (at each office) who has a different job, and they have been pulling away to help with issuing licenses.”

But, she said, the offices are still finding themselves understaffed to handle the influx of people. Through the end of last year, Crawford said, driver’s license offices islandwide handled an average of 255 people per day. Since they began issuing state ID cards, the county offices have added to their workload a total of 200 people a day islandwide.

She added that the last three weeks or so have been especially difficult because the Attorney General’s Office stopped issuing the cards several weeks before the counties took the job over, so there is a backlog of demand currently working its way through the system.

One new procedure that has helped make a considerable dent in the long wait times is something that was a suggestion from a customer that began on a temporary basis, but has since become exceedingly popular and looks to be here to stay.

“One of the things we implemented was a greeter position outside in Hilo and Kona to help screen people right away. They help them find what forms of identification they need, and help get them the right paperwork, so they’re not standing in line for an hour or two before they find out they don’t have the right documents,” she said.

Additionally, the state has funded two new positions to help with state IDs, she said.

“We have a new … person who started this month in Kona, and a new person starting the first of February in Hilo,” she said. While they are funded by the state, they will serve in a general capacity, issuing both state ID cards and driver’s licenses.

The island’s multiple offices have also been sharing employees, moving them from office to office as needed, Crawford said. Waimea is also set to fill a vacant position.

Crawford said she understands the frustration customers are feeling, but said that as the licensing department employees continue to familiarize themselves with the procedures and the workload, service will come faster and more efficiently.

“It’s really a funny phenomenon. If you come in at the right time, you can be in and out in 15 minutes. That still happens every so often,” she said. “But I don’t think it will ever be like it was.

“This week in particular, it seems to be quite busy. What we tell people is, there isn’t any magic time to come. But in general, we say don’t come after a three-day weekend, that’s always a heavier time in our offices. And through lunch time is never good. People often think lunch is a good time. … But we are required by union contract to provide lunch breaks to staff. And even though they take turns, there will probably always be fewer people working the windows.”

For more about the county’s Vehicle Registration and Licensing division, visit http://www.hawaiicounty.gov/finance-vrl/.

Email Colin M. Stewart at cstewart@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

 

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