They say the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. The lines in Jefferson County to get an auto tag are straight but there's nothing short about them.
Andrew Young took a book with him and since he arrived he had read 103 pages. Lee Suttles who does home appraisals for a living had to miss two at $400 apiece. So he gives this appraisal, "Thank you, Jefferson County. I had to come down here and miss $800 to come sit in line for 3 hours."
It really is unbelievable.for something as simple as changing a license plate from "Sweet Home Alabama" to "Roll Tide" to "War Eagle," you're going to have to wait a long time.
Jefferson County CEO Tony Petelos knows all about it. He acknowledged, "Our waits can be from 15 minutes to 4 hours and I've heard of waits up to 5 hours. The system is not acceptable. And I know it's not acceptable for those people waiting on line downstairs because it's just a waste of their time."
Grady Williams is in that crowd downstairs. Once upon a time he says , they called Birmingham "The Magic City." But he said, "It ain't magic no more because this county just ain't been doing their job. This has been going on for about 5 years." He's onto something because the county's bankruptcy has been devastating.
Petelos said in 2008 Jefferson County had 3837 positions. Today there are 2055. "The county lost almost half, some 40-odd percent." Before the cutbacks, there were satellite offices in Homewood, Forestdale and Gardendale. Those are closed now.
And the DMV took a bit hit. Staffing at the Department of Revenue, once 164 people, dropped to 115 earlier this year. New hires have brought the number up a bit to 125 workers. The remaining satellite offices in Bessemer and Center Point are just as overburdened. Many workers stay until 7:00 at night or later to serve anyone who arrives in line by 5:00 PM. Petelos says that overtime costs the county $100,000 a year.
In many states including nearby Florida, Kentucky and Louisiana you can go to any county or parish to renew or get new tags. We asked Petelos, why not here? His response, "Welcome to Alabama."
To be fair, many states like Alabama require counties to collect their own tag fees. But Jefferson County, Alabama has another big handicap, arguably the worst of all. Petelos explained, "The current software was developed in 1998. In the IT world that's ancient."
15 year old software means so much information like tag numbers has to be keyed in manually step by painfully slow step.
But that's not the case in one county to the west. Things are going faster than you can say "Tuscaloosa." Workers there have the best equipment: scanners which replace manual entry, and software born in this century.
When we told Jeff Brown, Tuscaloosa County's License Commissioner about the five hour wait in Jefferson County, his response, "I don't know what to say."
In Tuscaloosa County, basic transactions aren't measured in hours... but in seconds! So we set out to test that process. We started the clock when we entered the doorway all the way through to the end of a simple transaction. It took less than 90 seconds. And here's the best part. That software and full ownership rights were sold by the people of Tuscaloosa County to their neighbors in Jefferson County or just one dollar a few weeks ago. Training of supervisors has already begun and new hardware is in the Jefferson County budget.
Petelos said, "My goal is to get it under an hour 45 minutes so that somebody can come in and do their business and leave and be back to where they came from in less than an hour."
Petelos said, "I feel very optimistic that over the next several months things are going to get better." He explained that owning the software will save the county millions in maintenance costs over the life of the program, more people are being hired, and by winter's end.
Really? By spring? Petelos said, "Maybe."
Tuscaloosa's Jeff Brown isn't sure how long the learning curve might be for county workers to be on top of the new system. "You can buy your kid a Cadillac but you've still got to teach him to drive."
Until Jefferson County passes that road test, drivers we talked to like Andrew, Lee, Grady, and Annette Wyatt of Gardendale will have to keep waiting! often losing time from work and precious income. Annette Wyatt said, "I don't think we have much choice."
Alabama's 13 Investigates will follow up on the progress of the new equipment and the people charged with running it.
Meanwhile, there are things you can do to ease some of the pain of waiting.
First, avoid the crush. Don't go to the DMV office at the beginning or the end of the month. Visit during the middle weeks. Try to go later in the day. If you're in line by 5 you will be served and the line tends to go faster then.
If you have a simple renewal, not changing your tag, do it by mail or online. Even if the sticker comes after the renewal month is over, you won't get a ticket if you have a receipt. And Jefferson County libraries will let you use their computers if you don't have one.
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