Stalled out 

Motor vehicle registration hits a costly roadblock

Neona Nicholl spent all of three minutes at the Missoula County Motor Vehicle Division Monday morning. Red ink scrawled on a sandwich board in the hall told her everything: “The Motor Vehicle System is not available on Monday and Tuesday.” She double-checked with the attendant before turning her son’s stroller for the door.

“Waited until the last minute,” Nicholl said. “I’m expired…This is just my luck. I should have known better.”

The $28.5 million Montana Enhanced Registration and Licensing System (MERLIN) hit its latest and most severe glitch this week since going live on April 21. Motor vehicle offices statewide conducted a two-day shutdown while the Montana Department of Justice (DOJ) set about righting its flunky magician. County motorists arrived Monday morning from as far as Seeley Lake only to be turned away.

MERLIN’s fickle nature comes as no surprise to anyone who’s renewed license plates this month. Recent waits at Missoula’s motor vehicle division (MVD) have stretched from two to three hours. Missoula County Treasurer Vickie Zeier says system glitches and obstacles set her staff back from day one, and lines began stacking up with seemingly no end in sight.

“No one should have to wait two hours to be waited on or get an answer to their question,” Zeier says. “I think the lines have been a travesty to the system. Poor people. I feel sorry for them.”

Zeier says her office conducted just shy of 1,600 title and registration transactions on May 29, and anticipated as many or more for June 1. MVD staff will work through Saturday, June 6 processing mail-in registrations and renewals in an attempt to stay on top of the mounting work.

So far, Zeier says the county has not had to pay overtime to staff. Instead, workers receive 1.5 hours of “comp time,” or paid vacation time, for every extra hour worked.

According to DOJ Deputy Director Larry Fasbender, even the state feels unexpectedly burdened by MERLIN. Montana contracted for improvements to its antiquated system in 2003. Tech consultants at a Dallas-based company called Bearing Point implemented the first phase of MERLIN in 2005, but the company declared bankruptcy in December 2008 with the system only partially built.

“As a consequence of all that, we had to take it over,” Fasbender says. “We’d spent about $21 million on the project to that point, and there was still another phase to go…All these things conspired in sort of a perfect storm.”

Now Montana is responsible for completing the complex software system. Last weekend the state hired specialists from 3M, which bought up the original designer of the system, under an emergency contract.

Fasbender could not estimate how much the problems will cost the state beyond MERLIN’s original $28.5 million price tag. He told another news organization it could come close to $500,000, but now thinks it may be less. He believes most of the bugs have been corrected during the two-day shutdown.

“I probably should never have guessed [at the price],” Fasbender says. “Right now we’re focusing on getting the thing up and running more than on anything else.”

Fasbender acknowledges the current frustration felt by county officials and Montana residents, but says MERLIN will eventually be worth the wait. For example, he says the state used to take 54 days to turn title transactions around. On a good day, MERLIN can trim that process to three or four days.

“It’s not unusual to have a number of problems you have to deal with after you go live in production,” Fasbender says. “By no means is this system a failure. It’s going to work, and eventually we will get the bugs out of it.”

Zeier went so far last Friday as to notify Missoula County Sheriff Mike McMeekin of the office’s closure. McMeekin says that until the MVD catches up on renewals, county law enforcement will be lenient on citations for expired tags.

“We’ll be working with people as much as we can,” McMeekin says. “Obviously we’re not going to ticket them because it’s not their fault.”

The same goes for the Missoula Police Department, says Capt. Chris Odlin. State officials spread the word, encouraging state law enforcement offices to be understanding about the situation.

“We did put it out to the patrol guys that people who’s registration expired in May, we need to show some discretion there,” Odlin says. “That doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone who decided not to renew during May is going to get a free pass. It’s the people who tell us, ‘Yea, I’ve tried but I can’t do it.’”

That news will come as a relief to Missoulians like Salina Perez, who gazed at the MVD sandwich board for several seconds before casting confused glances around the hallway.

“I’m a little mad,” Perez said, “because my license plates are up on the 31st of May and now I have to drive around all day with expired plates.”

Jon Burt was similarly annoyed by the shutdown. He’d stopped by the MVD twice before May 31, but both times the wait proved too long. Then on Monday he found the office closed.

“I came down here once and was told it was a three-hour wait,” Burt said. “I’m self employed, so I said no way. Now the system’s down? It’s a huge inconvenience.”

Even when MERLIN comes back online, Zeier doesn’t see much immediate relief. Her office will have a heck of a time catching up from the two-day closure, and there’s no telling when MERLIN will misbehave next.

“It’s going to take time,” Zeier says. “I don’t like being a pessimist, but I think we’re going to have a long summer.”
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