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.