County DMV

Governor Andrew Cuomo announced last Friday that the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) is expanding online services with a pilot program that will allow new drivers to take the written learner permit tests for passenger cars (Class D) and motorcycles (Class M) online, and also allow customers who reside in counties served by the state DMV to register their vehicles online.  That may seem like good news, but Tompkins County Clerk Maureen Reynolds says the plan takes much needed revenue away from the County DMV -- run by her office and not by the State -- sort of.  And that makes it more challenging to generate enough income to keep all the local DMV employees and services here in Tompkins County.  Reynolds adds that removing the vision test because services are offered online could pose a hazard.

"I do see this as a big loss of income. They're saying it's due to COVID, but it could move in the future," Reynolds says.  "But now if they take away the vision test, which is not a good thing, because some people really shouldn't need to have their vision tested before they get a license.  There are some people that shouldn't be driving. So there's a safety issue that we're concerned about."

Part of state guidance sent to municipal clerks last Friday reads, "In addition, starting this week, in order to address the enormous backlog of license renewals, we will be piloting a 12-month vision test deferral option for license renewals. It will be available, upon invitation, to New Yorkers whose driver licenses expired or will expire after March 1, 2020."

"I guess the most upsetting part of this was that we were never in on these discussions until we found out Friday," Reynolds says. "I get that there is a backlog – we are currently booking for mid-November right now. However, NYS DMV is almost a month behind us on whatever we are doing. We even helped them out by processing some of their dealer work during their shutdown. On Facebook, we pushed the mail-in service, came up with a drop-box option, and opened our offices by appointment a good month before NYS DMVs. We talk to our citizens, we hear their frustrations and we really try to help – not sure you can get that dedication from NYS DMV. We get a lot of calls from people who went online and renewed their registration and never got their documents. They then have to come into our office for us to issue them at no fee. Got to love Albany …"

The Tompkins County DMV is overseen by the County Clerk's Office, which makes Reynolds the DMV boss.  Now that the office is opened, new state regulations mean, among other things, that entry into the office is by appointment only. The appointment requirement mandates that somebody has to stand out front to manage the number of people going in, and to turn away those who don't have an appointment.

In the mornings that person is one of two DMV employees who rotate the responsibility.  It's not an easy job. A lot of people are nervous and angry.  Reynolds herself is the 'bouncer/traffic cop' each afternoon on the grounds that she wants the DMV clerks doing what they are there for -- to help drivers get the licenses and permits they need.

After closing local DMV offices in May due to COVID-19, Cuomo extended licenses for 45 days.  Many people were not aware of the extension, and frantically tried to get their licenses renewed, which is causing more turmoil when people are turned away for not having an appointment.  That put pressure on local DMV offices once they did open with limited operations.  Part of Cuomo's requirements is that in-person DMV visits must be by appointment, and that means someone has to stand out front to manage traffic in and out of the storefront, and to turn away those who didn't know about the requirement.

"A lot of people are great," Reynolds says. "A lot of people are nice --then there are the ones that you just want to cry. At the end of the day, I call my mother on the way home and I tell her the stories and we laugh about it.  It's my therapy. I get their frustration. There's a higher frustration and anger level with everything nowadays and I get it. So we're trying as hard as we can."

Reynolds has long held the position that it is unfair for the State to offer online services without distributing the money collected to local DMVs that otherwise would have provided those services.  Many county residents renew their licenses and registrations online without knowing that doing so diverts income from their local community.  It's easy to do so with the state's system of sending reminder emails with links to online forms.  Fill them out, pay with a credit card, and your license or permit or plates arrive in the mail soon after.

She says the local DMVs are agents of the state, bound by state rules, forms, and procedures.  Reynolds has been a leader among clerks state-wide in embracing electronic and online services, spearheading a successful push for the county and its municipalities to store records online, and to make public records accessible over the Internet.  She says she has offered to create a local online portal for DMV services that would be run by and pay into the Tompkins County DMV.  But she is not allowed to do it.

"We have to use theirs. We're agents of them," Reynolds explains. "So we have to use their software and their network and they send us their forms. But we're County employees trying to do the best for our constituents here, which is really hard when during COVID we didn't know from day one to the next, what we could and couldn't do.  I actually saw that Monroe County was doing the drop box and mail-in stuff. We'd been told we couldn't do anything. And so we started doing it and if we had problems, we called Albany. They were told not to talk to us and help us out. "

During the pandemic rules for all governments and government offices within New York State keep changing daily, frustrating elected officials and municipal employees.

"It's exasperating and the rules are changing and they hold us in place so that we can't do what we need to, which is upsetting also, because everyone who comes here, I want to get them through," Reynolds says.  "We're booking into mid November now. If you make an appointment today you're going to get something in mid-November. Sometimes we have cancellations. I tell them to check at night or in the morning and they can might be able to come sooner. But yeah, it's awful."

According to Cuomo's announcement, "For the first time ever, New Yorkers who live in counties with state-run DMV offices—New York, Kings, Queens, Bronx, Richmond, Nassau, Suffolk, Westchester, Rockland, Albany and Onondaga counties—can now register their vehicles online on the DMV website. This eliminates the need to visit a DMV office, making it safer and more convenient, and it allows the DMV to offer more appointments to customers needing transactions that must be completed in-person.  The DMV is working with County Clerks who operate DMV offices in the remaining 51 counties to expand the online registration service statewide."

Cuomo says the online learner permit tests contain 50 questions and take approximately 45 to 60 minutes to complete. Those who pass the test will receive an email with further instructions about making a reservation at a DMV office to complete the process of getting their learner permit. He says an appointment to complete the process takes an average of only 5 minutes.

Reynolds fears that will mean even more lost revenue, and it has prompted her and her staff to get creative.  She announced on her Facebook page that the Tompkins County DMV could register vehicles from anywhere in the state, and that has accounted for some new revenue.  The local staff is trying to do as much as they can within state guidelines, but also just trying to keep the office open.

"We are registering vehicles from all over the state because I put it out on Facebook. We want to keep revenue coming into the County and we didn't want to lose money and have to lay off employees. We're trying to be creative and get as much money in as we can. We found one clerk was doing a little bit more. So we all talked and kept pushing the boundaries without them coming in and slapping us and shutting us down. They would threaten us if we didn't use an appointment system when we reopened to the public, they would come in and shut us down."

Most of the things you might need at the DMV don't really require an in-person visit.  You can obtain forms online and leave them in a drop-box outside the 3rd Street office between 8:30am and 4pm.

"We process that they and have to wait for the mail to get back to them. But it works out really well for basically all the registrations and renewals and new plates, transfers -- and making it so that really the only thing we need people to come in the office to do right now is the permit test and the license renewals," Reynolds says.

DMV Commissioner Mark J.F. Schroeder said, "We always strive to adapt and modernize our services to better meet the needs of our customers and to make things safer as we battle the coronavirus. Offering these transactions online is more convenient and safer for those who need to get a permit or register a vehicle, and it allows us to free up more space in our offices to serve those who cannot do their transaction remotely."

Last week Cuomo said, "As the last six months have demonstrated, we need to continue reimagining how to provide essential government services safely, securely and efficiently in the midst of this pandemic. These online options will make it more convenient for New Yorkers to access the services they need, while reducing congestion in the DMV offices and helping continue our shared progress in stopping the spread of this virus."

Reynolds fears that the convenience of online registration and testing will make it harder and harder to keep the local office running.  She advocates for more money from the State to make up for lost income needed to keep the local office open.

"I think what County Clerk's Association is going to have to do is make them give us more for what we do in the office. He has to make some sort of financial commitment to us to keep providing the services," she says.  "As for revenue loss, who knows yet – too soon to tell - … we are just going to keep helping everyone as much as we can."