Originally created 12/10/97

Performance may be improved



COLUMBIA -- Imagine sitting at the Division of Motor Vehicles casually waiting until your number's called. Or renewing your driver's license by mail. Or having the operator who answers your call answer your questions instead of leaving you on hold for what seems like three days.

Those improvements could come if the Public Safety Department heeds a performance audit delivered Tuesday to a government steering committee headed by Lt. Gov. Bob Peeler.

"I think there's a number of improvements that we can make right away that won't cost a lot of money," Public Safety's interim director, Eddie Gunn, said.

Plans to upgrade computer databases, hire more employees and make the 150 part-timers full time are under way, Gunn said.

The audit by KPMG Peat Marwick LLP has 60 recommendations. They include:

-- Raising current title fees from $5 to closer to the national average of $11 per car.

-- Staggering hours at some offices so drivers can go after work or on Saturdays.

-- Using a "take-a-number" system like at a deli counter or butcher shop.

-- Merging the Highway Patrol with the Transport Police and reorganizing the new unit to get more troopers on the road.

The audit said the changes would save about $12.8 million a year.

Peeler said he supported about every recommendation, except increased fees, which the audit said would generate about $11 million a year.

"Until the DMV gets its house in order, the last thing we need to consider is a fee increase," he said.

South Carolina charged less than three out of every four states, said John DiRenzo of KPMG.

"We don't do this lightly," he said. "But professionally in the context of a performance audit, we need to point this out."

As army Sgt. Jeff Young and his wife waited to register their car, he said he was happy to hear that someone is considering the license branches' problems It was an unusually uncrowded afternoon at the Shop Road office in Columbia.

"The last time I was here to get my license, it was ugly," Young said.

Judy Ricard, assistant manager at Shop Road, says she hears complaints, especially from people who arrive at 8 a.m. and find a line at the locked double-doors.

Motor Vehicles uses the number system at its Park Street office that handles driver suspensions and vehicle titles. Customers can rest in 27 chairs and three long wooden benches after taking their red numbered ticket.

"Heck, even Outback Steaks does that," said Peeler's spokesman, Heath Thompson.

Another audit proposal includes installing a modern phone system so whoever picks up the call answers the question or gets it directly to someone who can.

Auditors also suggested letting car dealers issue license plates instead of going through Motor Vehicles and letting car owners choose to renew their registration for one or two years.

Gunn will report back in about two months with an outline of what needs to be done. Some ideas may need legislative action, while others, like improving the department's slow and outdated computers, already is being worked on.

"We have systems that don't even talk to each other," Gunn said.

Ralph and Jessica Blythe heard the Motor Vehicle horror stories when they moved from Seattle to Columbia two weeks ago, but they said it took less than an hour to change their drivers' licenses and get their plates.

"It was really very pleasant," Blythe said. "I hope this keeps it that way."