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I got those can’t get my car registration done on time blues

I have three things to say about this.

The Harris County tax office is paying 32 clerks overtime on weekends to eliminate a large backlog of unprocessed auto registrations, a potentially serious problem that could force some motorists to drive with expired decals.

Drivers can receive costly tickets and civil penalties for lapsed vehicle registration and cannot use the backlog as an excuse, tax officials stressed.

Since the overtime crew began last weekend, processing the mail-in renewals is down to 12 working days, said Harris County Tax Assessor Collector Don Sumners. Last week, a clerk answering the helpline said mail-in renewals were taking four weeks because of the backlog in April.

That means potentially thousands of motorists who mailed in their registrations – those expiring at the end of April – did not get them by May 1. The tax office was advising residents who wanted to drive their car legally to come to a tax office or one of 200 local stores where registrations are sold and purchase a second sticker, then apply for a refund when the renewal sticker arrives in the mail.

Sumners blamed the backlog on last year’s countywide budget cuts, which caused a 9 percent personnel reduction. He also cited a boost in local car sales. Auto registrations in 2011 were up 100,000 from 3.3 million in 2010, while new title transactions grew from 845,000 to 880,000.

“We’re operating under a reduced staffing level, as is all of the county,” said Sumners, adding the auto registration section is down 22 employees. “The problem that we have is the volume keeps growing even though the economy’s not good.”

[...]

Paul Bettencourt, the previous tax collector, expressed surprise at the length of the backlog and said that in the past, staff were cross-trained and assigned to busy areas as the work flow demanded.

“They need to shift people to work the backlog,” Bettencourt said. “You put all hands on deck and transfer people in from other departments.”

1. Finally, a story that appropriately quotes Private Citizen Paul Bettencourt! I knew if we hung around long enough this would happen eventually. I feel like I should commission a plaque to commemorate the occasion.

2. It sure is hilarious to see Mister “I was Tea Party before Tea Party was cool” whine about the negative effects of cutting government spending, isn’t it? I’m told the answer is to do more with less, Don. Good luck with that.

On a more serious note, I understand that cutbacks do affect us all, that the distribution of auto registrations is not uniform over the year, that there were more cars bought this year than was expected, and that all this is happening right as voter registration cards finally got sent out. I also understand that processing registrations is one of the main functions of this office. Was there really no contingency for dealing with an unexpected increase in the load level?

3. When you blame budget cuts for a problem like this, you’re really blaming Commissioners Court for not adequately funding the office. As such, the absence of a quote from a commissioner is notable. If this had been a story about the Sheriff’s Office dropping the ball on a basic operational matter, I feel confident we’d have been treated to the wit and wisdom of Steve Radack. I wonder what he thinks about this situation and Sumners’ response to it. Campos has more.

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7 Comments

  1. Jim Bigham says:

    The county annex is just as poorly staffed. I thought my registration was due in May, along with my inspection, until I looked closer and realized it was due in April. I dashed to the Gulfton Annex and was met with a line out the front door. I walked to the inside door of the tax office to see what was going on and sure enough, everyone was in line for a tags and such. I asked a guy near the front how long he’d been waiting and he said TWO HOURS.

    I couldn’t wait so I left and went back after lunch where it also took me about two hours to wind my way through the line and get my sticker. Chatting with a guy in the main tax office room, he noted that only about 1/3 of the windows were staffed. That’s 5 of 15 stations open on the last day of the month. He expressed some annoyance and I nicely reminded him that there is an election this fall and that this is what we have chosen.

    If we want something different, we have to stop electing the same old dog and pony show!

  2. Karl Ittmann says:

    Nice of Bettencourt to weigh in, but it wasn’t much better during his tenure. I remember waiting over month to get my registration processed. When I called, his office claimed that it was lost in the mail. After I cancelled the check, they finally found it. I remember thinking that if Bettencourt spent as much time running his office as telling everyone else how to run theirs, then maybe things would improve.

  3. [...] just reported on the vehicle registration problems at the Harris County Tax Assessor’s office, the Chron now writes about the GOP primary for [...]

  4. Jim, great job connecting that guy’s frustrating, time-wasting experience to what a vote for one candidate over another can mean. Maybe we need to be doing voter education in the lines at all under-staffed government offices!

  5. matx says:

    This happened to us–May 1st rolled around, and I looked online to see what I could do about checking the status of the registration. I finally tracked down a number for the tax assessor office: if you have to call this office about your vehicle registration don’t bother with the automated menu-go right to a real live person as soon as you get the chance. You will have to wait a very long time to speak to a real live person, but be patient. You will have to explain why you are calling and have your license plate number handy. If the person cannot find you in their system he or she will put you on hold to check to see if your payment was received and just not processed yet. This entire process will take over a half an hour of your time so budget accordingly.

    When they couldn’t find any record of the payment I went to North Shepherd (go between lunch time and school dismissal times if you can) and stood in line for about 20 minutes to pay yet again and get the sticker and new plates.

  6. [...] unchanged districts were being used it says a lot about the lack of oversight under Sumners, which shouldn’t come as a surprise at this point. Roy Morales, the outgoing trustee in Precinct 1, Position 6, called for Sumners to [...]

  7. [...] pay my registration fees by mail so this hasn’t affected me personally, but as we know long lines at the Tax Assessor’s office is a problem that has needed solving, so kudos to Sullivan for taking this step. It’s a bit [...]

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