Capitol Alert

A comeback story? California DMV wait times dropping

The California Department of Motor Vehicles is looking to produce a comeback story.

Overrun by angry complaints from customers and politicians, the agency launched an ambitious plan to reduce hours-long wait times experienced over the summer.

It appears to be delivering.

DMV Director Jean Shiomoto told California lawmakers on Aug. 7 that the waits customers were experiencing would begin to drop by mid-September and return to a more reasonable level by the end of the year. She set goals of 15-minute wait times for customers with appointments and 45-minute waits for those without them.

“You’ve got to put an ambitious goal out there to reach it,” Shiomoto said at the time.

In July, the statewide overall average wait time was 69 minutes. The latest report the DMV submitted to lawmakers in November shows the number dropped to 39 minutes — a 43 percent reduction. As of late-October, customers with appointments waited an average of 14 minutes, while customers without appointments waited an average of 46 minutes.

Assemblyman Jim Patterson, R-Fresno, the most prominent critic of the DMV, was skeptical of a possible turnaround. After an August budget hearing, he said he did not have confidence in Shiomoto’s ability. He said Thursday that he stands by that comment and thinks the DMV still has several problems to deal with.

“Thanks to the demands of an outraged public, Legislature and the spotlight of the media, the DMV has finally reduced wait times,” Patterson said. “The DMV is still under an incredible amount of scrutiny – and rightly so. It’s not good enough to merely handle the baseline traffic. They’ve botched fundamental things, and it’s taken them this long under enormous pressure to get to square one.”

The DMV is crunching updated numbers for a new monthly report coming out in the next few days but said December and January are typically the least active months for customers, which suggests the wait times will continue to decline. The agency attributed the lower wait times to increases in staffing, expanded office hours and technological improvements.

California lawmakers approved $16.6 million in June for the DMV to use to lower office wait times. That was on top of the $47 million in the department’s base budget intended for hiring 550 more workers in anticipation of greater workload.

After the DMV requested an additional $26 million in August to hire 400 more employees, the Legislature approved a budget bill making unlimited funds available at the discretion of the Department of Finance with legislative approval.

From July to October, the department hired 1,467 additional employees, nearly two-thirds of whom have already started working. Meanwhile, it has worked to modernize outdated technology and fully integrate a text notification system.

Despite the department’s latest successes, a string of problems still remain. Most notably, few customers have come in for federally-mandated Real ID cards — identification required by Oct. 1, 2020 for people wishing to board planes without passports.

By the end of October, the DMV had issued 1.5 million cards — far short of the estimated 23.5 million Californians who are eligible to get them. Some of the problems stem from lack of awareness of the Real ID program and customers’ failure to bring in the proper documents when they go to the DMV. The department has set up a task force to address both issues and help lead outreach efforts.

The DMV also faces internal hurdles. It set up a task force to discover why nearly a third of its employees do not show up for work when the day begins.

The DMV stunned lawmakers in October when it said its absenteeism rate is around 30 percent. It is now working to develop a more accurate measure that takes into account scheduled absences and employees who start their work day after field offices open. The department has since adjusted its absenteeism rate from 30 percent to just 6 percent. The State Controller’s Office could not provide points of comparison.

“The DMV remains committed to further refining strategies and working to implement others that will allow the department to sustain and continue to improve wait times,” said Armando Botello, spokesman for the DMV.

Department of Finance investigators are now working in the field, as part of its ongoing performance audit into DMV operations, according to H.D. Palmer, a spokesman for the department. Botello said the audit “has not had an effect on our daily operations.” A full report is expected to be released in March.

The audit was updated to include an investigative component that examines the DMV’s implementation of the Motor Voter program, which launched earlier this year to automatically register people to vote when they visit the DMV.

The Sacramento Bee has demanded that Secretary of State Alex Padilla provide documents he is withholding from the public about the Motor Voter program. Padilla has not answered questions about whether non-citizens voted this year. The DMV reported in October about 1,500 registration errors, including non-citizens who may have been improperly added onto the voter rolls.

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Bryan Anderson is a political reporter for The Bee. He covers the California Legislature and reports on wildfires and transportation. He also hosts The Bee’s “California Nation” podcast.