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Locals line up hoping to avoid license, motor vehicle fee hikes

By Staff | Sep 1, 2009

Lines wrapped around Lee County Tax Collector offices Monday as customers waited hours to avoid fee increases for driver’s license and motor vehicle services, which go into effect today.
Due to the high volume of customers throughout the weekend and Monday, the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles’ Web site, which provides an online payment system, saw intermittent problems and was periodically unavailable, said department spokesman Dave Westberry.
“We’ve pretty much seen an extraordinary amount of folks trying to reach out to us on Friday, over the weekend and then again (Monday),” he said. “We have worked very, very hard to make sure our customers are served in a timely manner.”
Beginning today, various fees associated with driver’s licenses, motor vehicle registrations, tags and titles will increase by individual amounts, as per the state budget voted on by Legislature.
A four-door sedan with previous registration fees of $40, for example, will cost $70 under the new system of fees. Customers are being notified via mail of the fees specific to them.
To avoid the fee increases, customers waited hours in the Florida sun and inside various tax collectors offices. Many who tried to pay online could not when the system went offline.
Several weeks ago, the department’s online system saw a total of 337,000 hits on one Friday from customers around the state, Westberry said. The hits this past Friday totaled 873,000, a 159 percent increase.
Additionally, as of 2 p.m. Monday, 54 offices around the state saw 15,000 driver’s license customers, which Westberry projected as a 100 percent increase by the end of the day.
The system was not prepared for the sudden spike, but IT personnel worked diligently to repair problems as quickly as possible.
Customers who were not served at the lower rates due to system issues were issued vouchers for those amounts until Sept. 10.
“This has been an extraordinary push that really couldn’t have been anticipated,” Westberry said.
Most of the issues with the online system were not experienced by office workers helping customers, so workers were able to help those could not get online, he said.
Customers still were not happy about the fee increases, nor the wait times.
“I had a car to register, and I’m going on vacation, so I went to get it before the change,” said North Fort Myers resident Gary Melvin, who visited the tax collector’s office in Merchant’s Plaza. “When I got there it was unbelievable. I waited in line at least a half an hour — the line to get a number.”
Melvin said the line stopped moving for a period of time and eventually he left, accepting the increased fees rather than waiting for what he imagined might be several hours.
“I think the system was down from the glut of people trying to avoid the harsh tax changes in a post-Bush economy,” he said. “I looked around, nobody was moving, everybody looked sick, so I just pushed the door open and left.”
Melvin believed residents who are suffering economically stood in the long lines and sometimes sweltering heat out of necessity.
“They have to stand there,” he said. “It’s too much. It’s going to take us a little bit to get out of this mess we’ve inherited.”
Denise Boswell of Cape Coral stood in line at the local office for an hour and had inched her way to the front entrance by 4:30 p.m.
“I don’t understand it, it’s crazy,” she said of the new fees system.
Boswell, who had come to renew her registration, anticipated the long line. Still, she never experienced a wait of the magnitude she encountered Monday.
“Usually you just breeze right in,” Boswell said.
Though customers were not happy with the wait, Westberry said most understood resources were overburdened and workers were doing what they could.
“Our customers have been extremely pleased with our efforts to accommodate them,” he said. “They understand that that’s the exception and not the rule.”
Typically, 89 percent of customers are served in 15 minutes or less, Westberry added.
A general manager at the Cape Coral Tax Collector office was unable to comment due to the amount of customers still fluxing into the office late in the afternoon.
A spokesperson for the Lee County Tax Collector office could not be reached for comment.
Westberry praised Lee County Tax Collector Cathy Curtis for her efforts and the efforts of Lee County employees Monday.
“They’re just as concerned as we are that those customers get served,” he said.