The Boston Herald
Friday, April 28, 2000
Dig woes may mean longer Registry lines
by Cosmo Macero Jr.
Drivers may soon have yet another reason to hate the
Big Dig and the Registry of Motor Vehicles as the project's voracious appetite for cash
threatens to lengthen lines and intensify headaches at the beleaguered agency.
Anxious Registry officials are warning that tens of
thousands of new customers will flood already-stressed branch offices every month if car
registration fees are reinstated to help cover the Big Dig's $1.4 billion cost overrun.
"You're paying for a Cadillac, but all (we) can
deliver is a jalopy," said Registrar of Motor Vehicles Dan Grabauskas yesterday.
Moreover, a plan to spend some $14 million on more
staff and new phone and computer equipment for the Registry is falling victim to the
Central Artery project.
It was zapped by House budget writers to make room for
a costly Big Dig bailout plan, and it appears doubtful the Senate will act to restore it.
The crush of new customers is very likely, sources
say, since a House-Senate conference committee is prepared to sign off on the reinstated
fees, and Gov. Paul Cellucci has backed off his opposition to the plan.
"(Motorists) are paying for crappy service,"
said one Registry insider, who spoke only on condition of anonymity. "Now they're
going to pay more money and get even crappier service."
With 1980s-era computers, a phone system that misses
88 percent of calls and short staffing levels in virtually every branch, the Registry has
already been dogged by customer complaints and scathing performance reviews from
"When I met with House leadership, I was told
that we would have our money for the big-ticket items," said Grabauskas, lamenting
the Big Dig's double blow to his agency. "Everything the Legislature has asked us to
do, we've done. We've revamped the way we're doing things, and people are complimentary.
But I'm getting nervous."
Registry officials say policy and fee changes
routinely swell the number of customers who handle their business with the agency in
person, even though some tasks can be handled by mail. The reinstatement of auto
registration fees, officials say, will send an estimated 50,000 additional people each
month to the Registry's 39 branches.
"That's where I really throw my arms up,"
Grabauskas said. "My number-one job over here is to shorten the lines. But there
needs to be some kind of investment made in the Registry."
Registration renewal fees for passenger vehicles,
which were canceled by former Gov. William F. Weld in 1996, are slated to be $30 every two
years. The fee proposal is part of a comprehensive Big Dig bill that could be released as
early as today.
Dubbed by Cellucci as a "rising star,"
Grabauskas now risks joining a long line of registry chiefs who promised reform but
couldn't deliver for one reason or another.
The $14 million, which Grabauskas all but demanded
upon taking over as Registrar last fall, was designed to meet current equipment and
staffing needs and simply catch up with the maddening lines and phone backlogs.
But House members pulled the cash from a supplemental
budget, saying it was for non-essential "expansion" programs at the Registry.
"There is no agency expansion," said House
Ways and Means spokeswoman Kim Rezendes. "Because of the Big Dig, we're not
comfortable spending (surplus funds)."
While Grabauskas said he was "cautiously
optimistic" after a recent meeting with Senate Ways and Means Chair Mark Montigny
(D-New Bedford), Montigny said yesterday the Registry's plight may be part of the
"pain" taxpayers suffer because of the Big Dig crisis.
"There is certainly no guarantee (the funding
will be restored)," Montigny said.
He said lawmakers are being told the state's $500
million budget surplus, from which the Registry funding would come, for the time being is
off limits for anything but the Big Dig bailout.
"That $500 million would have been available for
things like the Registry," Montigny said. "But anyone who thinks we're going to
have free-flowing funds this year is wrong. Forget about it."
Several sources, who spoke only on condition of
anonymity, said Grabauskas is concerned that Cellucci is doing little to help convince
lawmakers to restore the $14 million.
With intense pressure from federal officials to come
up with a Big Dig bailout, observers say, Cellucci is wary of ruling out the registration
fees or demanding that the Registry funds be appropriated from the $500 million surplus.
Cellucci's press secretary, John Birtwell, said he
thinks the $14 million "may find its way back in" to the budget.
But Registry officials note that even with the $14
million, the agency is ill-prepared to deal with the expected flood of new customers.