Memo Reveals New Details as Minnesota Works to Fix Vehicle System

The team's getting pressure from state officials to wade through a backlog of more than 350,000 transactions.

by Dave Orrick, Pioneer Press / December 1, 2017
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(TNS) — The backlog of vehicle titles and registrations in Minnesota’s new computer system has gotten so big that a supervisor recently instructed staff to focus on speed and “accept the additional risk of errors in our work.”

An internal memo obtained by the Pioneer Press also described bureaucratic work for more expensive vehicles as “more critical” than the same tasks for lower-priced ones.

The directives raise further questions about how troubles with the computer system, known as MNLARS, will affect hundreds of thousands of vehicle transactions, at least some portion of which are already known to have errors.

The motivation for the emphasis on speed appears to come not from a general desire to streamline work flow but from pressure on state officials to wade through a backlog of transactions, which exceeds 350,000.

Here are some quotes from the memo:

  • “When you come across a transaction that you are not sure about whether to process it or not, look for a reason why you should do it rather than a reason you should not.”
  • “The review of a sale of a vehicle worth $60,000 is more critical than a review of a sale of a vehicle worth $6,000.”
  • “Our focus should be on speed rather than detail right now.”

Those passages are from a Nov. 17 email from Craig Flynn, title and registration manager for Minnesota Driver and Vehicle Services (DVS). Part of the Department of Public Safety, DVS is Minnesota’s version of a “DMV,” overseeing license plates, tabs and titles for vehicles, as well as driver’s licenses.

Flynn did not return a phone call seeking comment Thursday. Through a spokesman, he declined to comment.

In a statement to the Pioneer Press, Dawn Olson, Director of Driver and Vehicle Services, said: “To be clear, accuracy will not be sacrificed to increase the speed of processing, and that includes every transaction.”

An earlier statement by Olson reads: “DVS is committed to maintaining the integrity of titles and accuracy in vehicle records when processing transactions. The current DVS process ensures we are meeting those standards while we improve efficiency. It’s important to remember that deputy registrars are responsible for entering data into the system and DVS is responsible for verifying the information before the title is printed and mailed to the owner.

“We are working to reduce the time Minnesotans wait for their titles, including using mandatory and voluntary overtime to process, print, and mail titles.”

In his memo, Flynn pegged the backlog of transactions at “approximately 355,000.” The number fluctuates daily. As of close of business Wednesday, the backlog of titles stood at 376,214, a spokesman said.

Quality Control Sacrificed?

The process at the center of the memo appears to be a step where state workers double-check information entered by workers at car dealerships, license centers and other places that perform the initial processing of vehicle titles and registrations.

It’s not just a matter of proofreading. People are being charged wrong amounts in taxes and fees already, according to state investigators.

A MNLARS feature called the “base value calculator” often incorrectly calculates the value of a vehicle, which determines how much the owner should pay in various taxes and fees.

“We know the transactions aren’t happening for the right amount,” Judy Randall, the state’s deputy legislative auditor, told lawmakers at a hearing two days before Flynn’s memo. “Sometimes it’s a dollar, sometimes it’s $100.” But Randall said it’s not clear how far off the miscalculations are. “You have all these citizens who aren’t paying the right amount,” she said. “Are you going to charge them (if they were underbilled)? Are you going to refund them (if they were overbilled)?”

Her question remains unresolved, and Flynn’s suggestion that reviews of transactions of more expensive vehicles are more critical than lower-priced ones and would reduce the total dollar amount of errors — but not necessarily the number of errors. More expensive vehicles also bring more money into state coffers.

Pressure to Perform

The memo reveals the pressure DVS is under — from car dealers, lenders, members of the public and state officials — to swiftly process an essentially never-ending stream of of transactions that includes new titles, title transfers and license plate issuances and registration renewals (updating tabs). By October 2018, the system will be needed to handle new drivers’ licenses that meet federal REAL ID requirements.

Problems with the $97 million MNLARS (Minnesota License and Registration System) platform began with its rollout in July that immediately saw long lines at license centers. They didn’t end there.

Some people who bought cars in July are still waiting for plates, while dealers are increasingly complaining that not having titles to show banks puts their financing operations in jeopardy. Sooner or later, lenders require proof of a vehicle’s owner to ensure the loans they’re financing are for cars that actually exist.

Earlier this month, Minnesota IT Services Commissioner Thomas Baden told a Senate committee that, in hindsight, MNLARS wasn’t ready. “Had I known what I know now, I wouldn’t have released it at the time,” he said Nov. 15, two days before Flynn’s memo.

Also at that hearing, Public Safety Commissioner Mona Dohman told lawmakers the backlog of what was then an estimated 300,000 titles was on track to be tackled by Jan. 1. On Thursday, the Department of Public Safety said about 3,000 to 4,000 titles are printed and mailed each day. At that rate, fewer than 130,000 titles will be processed by Jan. 1, and new title requests arrive daily.

According to the department’s figures issued Thursday, the turnaround time for MNLARS is actually faster than the previous system, a decades-old dinosaur that was slated for replacement years before Gov. Mark Dayton took office in 2010. Turnaround times for new vehicle registrations are averaging 72 days, title transfers 71 days and duplicate titles 43 days. “Prior to MNLARS, it was about 80 to 90 days,” spokesman Bruce Gordon said in a statement.

Scanning Errors

One of the problems with MNLARS has been that it shifts the burden to deputy registrars at local license centers and employees at car dealers and auto auction outfits. In short, they have to input and upload data that, under the old computer system, state workers entered. Supervisors at license centers and those in the auto sales sector have complained that in addition to delays, the extra workload leads to more errors — and some errors can’t be fixed without starting the entire process over.

In theory, the DVS staff is a safeguard against such errors, but Flynn’s memo suggests that some errors, such as those made in scanned records, will just be ignored.

“If an image in MNLARS is not scanned correctly, please do not take the time to request that be rescanned,” Flynn wrote. He clarified that “even if important sections … are blocked out … do not request them to be rescanned. We will have to rely on the deputies and the dealers that they are doing their part and are collecting the appropriate documents and following procedures.”

Read the Entire Memo

Here’s Flynn’s entire memo:

With the large amount of transactions in the queue, approximately 355,000, we need to adjust the way that we in Title and Registration review the transactions in the queue. I want to ask that you be as quick as possible when reviewing transactions in the MNLARS Review and Complete queue. I know that supervisors have brought this topic up in the Exam Entry staff meetings. I want to reinforce their message as well as share it with people who do not attend that meeting.

I want each of you to approach the processing of transactions in the MNLARS work queue from the perspective of doing a high-level review. What I mean by that is to look at the items that could potentially create liability for DVS or problems for the vehicle owner, and not focus on smaller details that the deputy registrar staff member has already reviewed and been able to enter into MNLARS. For example, it is more important to ensure that a lien is properly recorded than to ensure that all its signatures and mileage readings are correct on reassignments. I also want to encourage and empower you to use your judgement when deciding how carefully to review a transaction. The review of a sale of a vehicle worth $60,000 is more critical than a review of a sale of a vehicle worth $6,000. Our focus should be on speed rather than detail right now.

I ask that you view this concept as shifting our mind-set to be more reliant on the deputy registrar staff and the MNLARS system. I know that both these fail us sometimes, as we ourselves fail. However, given our current circumstances we need to accept the additional risk of errors in our work in order to become more current quickly. When you come across a transaction that you are not sure about whether to process it or not, look for a reason why you should do it rather than a reason you should not. If you are still unsure how to proceed, ask one of the Title and Registration supervisors, Tom Henderson, or me.

I would also like to mention something about requests for document rescanning. If an image in MNLARS is not scanned correctly, please do not take the time to request that it be rescanned. For example, even if important sections on the PS2000 (lienholder, signature) are blocked out, or if the bills of sale on the title or dealer reassignment are blocked out, do not request them to be rescanned. We will have to rely on the deputies and the dealers that they are doing their part and are collecting the appropriate documents and following procedures.

Thank you for your continued efforts as we all work to adapt to this new environment. I am confident that the long-term results will make the pain of transition worth it.

Craig Flynn

Title and Registration Manager

Minnesota Driver and Vehicle Services

©2017 the Pioneer Press (St. Paul, Minn.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.