Missoula County: Wait times to register a vehicle likely to remain lengthy

Earlier this month, waits were many hours long in the Missoula County treasurer’s office. (Missoula Current file photo)

Missoula County officials are blaming long license renewal waits on too few employees and a change in the state’s computer network, and both issues may be difficult to fix.

Earlier this month, dozens of residents hoping to register a vehicle or complete title work at the Missoula County treasurer’s office waited hours for their number to come up, with many having to return the next morning.

A “hardware issue in the storage area network” at the state level was the source of that issue, said John Barnes with the Montana Attorney General’s Office. 

And while such extreme slowdowns are infrequent and most of this month’s issues were fixed, wait times are consistently long, said Tyler Gernant, Missoula County clerk and treasurer.

Many Missoula County officials blame a 2018 update of the Montana Enhanced Registration and Licensing Information Network, or MERLIN, for the long wait times. In fact, last August, Gernant wrote the attorney general’s office about the inefficient network.

The update required that the year tags for registration be printed on colored stickers that change colors every year. The colored stickers help law enforcement officers identify expired tags.

But they also mean licensing workers must manually enter a control number for each sticker.

“The end result is that each transaction is taking approximately two to three times as long to process,” Gernant stated. “Prior to these changes, Missoula County rarely had wait times exceeding one hour in the treasurer’s lobby.”

“Further complicating the situation, the software now routinely crashes in the middle of transactions, requiring the software to be restarted and the transaction to start anew,” he said. “In some instances, this happens multiple times during a single transaction.”

However, Barnes explained that the issues that arose last year and this month were not due to the MERLIN software. So far in 2019, none of the counties in Montana have formally filed for assistance with software or other tech issues.

“They likely resulted from general network speed issues due to then-new security measures/software, and some process adjustments resulting from January 2018 changes to how tabs were produced,” he said in an email. “MERLIN did not ‘crash’ then or recently.”

The motor vehicle software hasn’t experienced crashes since it was implemented in 2009, Barnes said, and the issue with the storage area network was the first time the Montana Attorney General’s Office experienced this.

“In the last year, there were three brief outages or slowdowns due to hardware or connectivity issues,” he said. “We are not aware of these being issues today.”

Summer months, specifically July, are the busiest for renewals and other transactions, Gernant said. Staffing is another issue; training a new clerk takes about six months.

More staffing is needed based on population increases, he said. The number of staff has decreased over the last 20 years, with the office currently employing 19 clerks who also work in other aspects of the office full-time.

Last year, when slowdowns were frequent, the office experienced high turnover rates.

From June 2018 to June 2019, about 36,000 titles 77,000 registration renewals were processed.

“We’ve actually reduced staff over time instead of increasing, and I think we’re sort of back now where we need more staff. At the moment, even if we could get more staff, we have nowhere to put them,” Gernant said.

While wait times may be inevitable in the treasurer’s office, Gernant said his office has implemented a way to keep residents out of the waiting room.

A local software developer created a queue system that allows individuals to enter their information to receive text messages or emails about when they are next in line.

On average, the wait time to do a title transaction is one to two hours, and having this service helps residents continue with their day while they wait for assistance. About two thirds of those who come through the office use the queue system.

“That was part of implementing that new queue system is we wanted to make it so you don’t have to come here to just pull a number and get in line,” Gernant said. “Now you can get in line from anywhere with web access and then it sends you a text message or an email when you’re about to get served.”

Both Gernant and the state are looking into implementing online title registration, since online renewals are currently available.