Monday, July 5, 1999
No competition, no
By John Macone
It sounds like a
tycoon's dream come true.
A business with a
built-in customer base of 5 million people who will wait in line for
an hour or more to buy its products.
A huge profit margin --
better than 1,000 percent. Every dollar invested in overhead returns
And there will never be
a competitor. Ever.
If you live in
Massachusetts, you own a piece of this business.
But you are likely one
of its hapless customers, too.
The business is the
Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles.
With $807 million in
revenue last year, it is the second-biggest generator of money for
the state, said Registrar Richard D. Lyons. The registry is outdone
only by the massive state Department of Revenue, which collects
income and sales taxes.
With an entity that
brings in that much money and has direct dealings with five out of
six Massachusetts residents, you might think there would be enough
money -- and enough will on the part of state leaders -- to take
care of the busy signals on its phone lines and the frustratingly
long lines that people often face at its offices.
Over the past two
months, The Eagle-Tribune has documented numerous examples of long
waits at offices in Lawrence and elsewhere.
But registry officials
say service, overall, is quite good.
It's the customers who
are out of whack.
In the words of one
registry document: "the public's perception of the agency does not
align with reality."
Critics say the
registry is such a cash cow for the state that little thought is
given to making it more efficient or to spending money to improve
In fact, there are
plans afoot to use it to squeeze even more money from taxpayers --
in part to offset the staggering cost of Boston's "Big Dig."
"They get you in so
many different ways," said an exasperated Chip Ford of Citizens
for Limited Taxation, the non-profit group that has led efforts
for 20 years to roll back or limit state tax hikes.
"They've got a captive
market," he said. "It's not like you can go to another registry."
Mr. Ford said he has
been trying to look into the registry's finances but his phone calls
are not returned.
Similar requests for
information by The Eagle-Tribune also met with resistance, and the
registry only turned over a portion of the information that was
asked for after being repeatedly browbeaten by the governor's
office, the Executive Office of Public Safety, and the Executive
Office of Administration and Finance. (See separate story, Page 3).
But what emerged from
that information, as well as interviews with several state officials
and observers, is an image of an agency that rakes in an enormous
At the same time, it
seems to have almost no comprehension of the frustrations that
citizens experience when they do registry business.
The cash cow
As a money-making
machine, the registry is hard to beat.
The registry's budget
is about $57 million, but it brings in about $800 million in
license and registration fees, tickets, sales taxes and other fees.
That income represents about 8 percent of the state's entire budget
of $20.5 billion.
In the private sector,
it would be a capitalist's dream.
"My God, that's
incredibly profitable," said William T. Ryan, president of Ryan
Financial in Andover, when given the figures. "I don't think there
are many businesses out there with that kind of profit margin."
In the mutual fund
industry, which Mr. Ryan studies closely, a healthy profit margin is
considered to be one that brings in $2 for every $1 spent.
Compared with other
state bureaucracies, the registry has lagged far behind in terms of
the amount of money plowed back into its operation.
According to figures
gathered by the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, the state budget
has risen 71 percent since 1988. The registry's budget has gone up
only 21 percent in that time.
In comparison, public
school and college spending is up 89 percent, while help for the
sick, retarded and disabled is up 64 percent.
Spending on jails has
risen by 142 percent.
When setting the
registry's budget, the state never considers the customers, or how
many offices there are to serve them and how many hours those
offices are open, said state Sen. James P. Jajuga, D-Methuen.
"No one ever looks at
that part of the equation," said Sen. Jajuga, who chairs the Joint
Committee on Public Safety, which has some oversight of the
"That's an area where
we shouldn't nickel and dime it, and unfortunately, that's what we
did," he said.
The registry's budget
is chiefly set by Gov. A. Paul Cellucci's financial analysts, based
on requests made by the registry as filtered through the Executive
Office of Public Safety.
Registrar Lyons said he
gets about as much money as he requests. And the money he gets is
enough to run the registry well, although improvements can be made,
Hiring employees and
keeping them is sometimes hard, particularly in the area's hot job
market, he said. Entry-level registry jobs pay about $20,000 a year.
The work is intensive,
requires a fair amount of training and exposes employees to a
sometimes rude public. As a result, the registry depends upon many
temporary workers, said Mr. Lyons.
"It's a tough job," he
said. "You can make almost the same amount working at a convenience
But hiring more workers
to fill in the empty windows customers see at registry offices is
not necessarily the answer.
"The simple solution is
to add more people, but that is just putting a salve on the
problem," he said.
The registry's answer
is a shift in policy.
It is trying to get
more people to use the Internet to do their business, and has set up
a major phone bank so people can conduct their business without
ever visiting an office.
It has also expanded
service to auto dealerships and plans to do the same with insurance
The goal is to improve
service while cutting expenses even more.
But there are problems
According to the
registry's own survey, only about half of its customers have
That leaves about 2.5
million people who would either have to call the phone bank or visit
Lack of Internet access
is a problem that is particularly hard on citizens in poor cities
like Lawrence, said Sen. Jajuga.
And the phone bank's
response is "abysmal," said Mr. Lyons.
"About 50 to 60 percent
of the calls can't get through," he said. The registry has requested
$5 million from the state to improve the phone service.
The 19-minute wait
But while Mr. Lyons
admits some deficiencies, overall he sees improvements now and even
more in the future.
His statistics show
that customers wait, on average, about 19 minutes in line.
He acknowledges there
are longer waits on occasion at some offices, such as Lawrence,
which he considers to be one of the most rundown offices in the
The registry's creation
of "super centers," such as the Stadium Plaza in Lawrence in
October, will make the waits at problem offices even shorter, he
"There's no question in
my mind that given a fair shot, the Stadium Plaza super center will
be something that people in Lawrence will be proud of, that
legislators will be proud of, and the registry will be proud of," he
But Mr. Lyons and other
officials deny that waits of two hours or more and lines going out
the door are routine -- though both have been documented repeatedly
by The Eagle-Tribune over the past two months.
In fact, the registry
claims that the public's "perception" of bad service is just an
illusion that does not correspond with reality.
"As shown in our recent
customer survey results, the public's perception of the Agency does
not align with reality," states the Registry's 1998 "Strategic Plan
The plan was issued by
the Registry to its staff in 1998 "to define our future and develop
a roadmap to take us there."
It states: "The public
views the Registry of Motor Vehicles as a state agency with long
wait lines, poor quality, and unfriendly service ... until they
actually visit us."
The agency's answer is
to conduct a publicity campaign and buy a "mobile service van" to
improve its image.
"Given this gap between
perception and reality, the Agency is committed to improving
communication to the public through our outreach programs and our
local public relations campaign," the report states.
Linked to Big Dig
There are some on
Beacon Hill who think the registry needs to rake in even more cash.
A handful of Democrats,
among them Sen. Robert A. Havern, D-Arlington, chairman of the
Transportation Committee, are pushing to get rid of the "lifetime"
license and registration system.
The cost to drivers
would be $33.50 yearly for registrations and $35 every five years
For registry users,
that could mean even longer lines.
The fact that the state
is switching to lifetime licenses is one of the factors that Mr.
Lyons cites for improved services at registry offices.
Gov. Cellucci is not in
favor of getting rid of the lifetime system.
His mentor, Gov. William F. Weld, pushed it through in the early
1990s. Under that system, your license and registration are
automatically renewed at no cost, as long as you have paid all of
your traffic and parking tickets.
[Due to our lawsuit – Chip Ford]
Next year, when the
free renewals start to take widespread effect, the state will lose
$55 million in registration and license fees -- money it needs for
highway improvements, argues Sen. Havern.
Among those arguing for
ending the free renewals is the venerable Massachusetts Taxpayers
Foundation, a think tank that has been studying state spending for
Widmer said cuts in federal highway money, the looming costs of the
Big Dig and a possible budget crunch in the near future make it
important to restore those fees.
"The money goes into
highway funds, so clearly it makes sense," he said. "That's why we
argued for the fees to be restored."
The Big Dig project --
designed to put Boston's elevated Central Artery underground so it
no longer cuts off the city's waterfront -- will cost upwards of $11
billion. It is already draining away money for other projects.
Mr. Widmer said he felt
"uncomfortable" commenting on the service that people receive at the
registry, because his organization has not studied it.
But he conceded the
registry should provide top-shelf service, given the fact that it is
probably used by more residents than any other state agency.
"As the number one
agency dealing with Massachusetts citizens, it's reasonable to
expect they would have the highest level of service," said Mr.
If lawmakers try to
bring the fees back, they will have a fight on their hands.
Mr. Ford of Citizens for Limited
Taxation sued the state in the early 1990s over registry fees,
arguing that the drafters of the Massachusetts state constitution
decreed that no fee could be higher than the cost of the service
they pay for.
The state settled out of court, and the lifetime system was part of
"Those old founders,
they knew what was coming," Mr. Ford said.
"It seems like every
few years someone tries something like this. Clearly we're falling
back into that trap."
Coming tomorrow: The
Registry must stop blaming customers for its poor service.
Monday, July 5, 1999
Long lines, frustrating
waits at other offices
By Steve Whipple and
Shortly after Richard
D. Lyons was hired as registrar of motor vehicles in July 1997, he
told a Boston newspaper what his number one priority was.
Reduce waits to 20
minutes within six months.
Six months later he
claimed the average wait was 19 minutes, though he conceded an
occasional hour-long wait was possible.
Now, nearly two years
after Mr. Lyons took over, he continues to maintain that long lines
and long waits are a rarity.
That is contrary to
what The Eagle-Tribune has observed on repeated visits to the
Lawrence office over the past two months. It also contradicts what
have become almost daily calls to the newspaper from frustrated
The Eagle-Tribune has
also found that the Lawrence office is no exception.
During a May 26 visit
to Lawrence, Mr. Lyons touted the success stories of the Reading
and Melrose registry offices, where waits, he said, were no longer
than 20 minutes.
But those offices and
others appeared to offer no escape when visited by The
Eagle-Tribune. Here is what we found:
On a Tuesday morning
late last month, shortly before 9 a.m., a 180-foot line of
customers waited on the sidewalk in front of the registry.
Once the office opened,
the customers formed a long U-shaped line in the lobby awaiting a
woman at the counter to assign them a number. At 9 a.m. only four of
the 10 windows were open.
Deborah Berube, who
moved with her family to Tewksbury from Lewisville, Texas, two
months ago, was suffering culture shock.
"We lived in Texas 10
years and I don't think we ever waited more than five minutes," she
Mrs. Berube explained
that in Texas, the registry sets up different services in
individual offices, often locating them side-by-side. License
renewals may be in one office, registrations next door.
Mrs. Berube's husband
walks with crutches and she has two young children. She was shocked
at the wait.
"When I called the
registry they told me to plan on being here four hours. Everyone I
talked to said the same," she said.
A reporter posing as an
out-of-state resident about to move to North Andover also called
the registry. It took six calls to get through.
The reporter inquired
about waits at the Lawrence and Lowell offices.
A clerk named Bill
said, "It could be an hour, it could be two, depending on how busy
it is. There could be a wait -- I won't lie to you."
He said getting to the
offices first thing in the morning would mean a shorter wait.
On this Tuesday in
June, Jean Marie Zarro of Billerica was making her fifth attempt to
renew her license.
The prior Tuesday she
went first to the registry office in Burlington, then to Reading.
Both had lines out the door. On Friday she tried the Lowell office,
but it too was jammed.
"On Monday I came
again. I couldn't get in the door, so I left," said Mrs. Zarro.
Finally, she returned the next day at 8:15 -- 45 minutes before the
Donna Rheaume said the Lowell office has 12 full-time employees,
one part-timer and a manager.
But by 9:20 when dozens
of people had filled the office, only eight people could be found:
four at the windows, two in license renewals and two in offices.
Patti Pearson of Dracut
sat a few feet from Mrs. Zarro with her own horror story. She said
that two weeks earlier she had waited two hours at the Reading
"If you're not here by
8:30 a.m. outside, you can plan on being here two to three hours,"
The Reading registry
shares its parking lot with a Recreational Equipment Inc. store, an
insurance agency and a Dunkin' Donuts.
The parking lot is
large, but on busy days -- and many are -- customers prowl the lot
in search of a car pulling out.
The problems continue
Customers are guided
between rows of stanchions to receive a ticket like the ones at a
deli counter. Waits can be as short as a half hour, or they can be
On a recent Wednesday
morning only two of 10 windows were staffed. Four other people
staffed the license area, which was standing room only by 10:30
That didn't bode well
for Mario Barreiro of Lynn, who waited about an hour to take his
driver's license test.
"Sometimes the lines
are out the door, but Beverly is much worse," he said. "Waits here
are usually a half hour. It's not that bad compared to the one in
The license area has a
separate digital counter on the wall.
A young man muttered he
had number 443; the counter indicated that number 409 was being
transactions taking between five and 10 minutes each, the young man
can expect to wait at least 170 minutes.
Robert Cooper of
Tewksbury stormed out of the building spewing a stream of
"Every time I come here
it's nothing but a hassle," he said. Mr. Cooper said the
registration form on his new car was kicked back because the dealer
forgot to fill in a couple of lines.
He dreaded the delay.
"The last time I was
here -- just for my son to get his license picture -- was 31/2
hours," he said. "Now I have to go back to the dealer in Woburn just
to have them type three lines. By the time I get back here the line
will be out the door.
A 32-space parking lot
serves the registry office at 40 Washington St., Melrose.
On a Tuesday last
month, all spaces were filled shortly before 3 p.m.
A half-hour later,
there was gridlock in the lot. A half-dozen cars pulled in and
waited for spaces in the full lot to free up.
Two cars waited on
Washington Street to pull into the lot, causing a traffic jam to
build up behind them.
Seven cars were parked
illegally on Washington Street in front of the Registry.
"We've got all these
people waiting, and I can't even get in there to wait," said driver
Robert Durant of Melrose. "This is my first time here. I think it
will be my last. Usually, I go to Reading. This is crazy."
"Obviously, this one
doesn't have enough spaces," said Claudine Langlois, of Saugus,
after she finally snagged a space.
So many registry
customers have tried to park in a factory parking lot across the
street from the registry that the building's owners hired a towing
company, said Melrose Police Sgt. James Smith.
Registry customers who
get the hook call police to complain about how quickly the tow
truck pounced. Sgt. Smith said a spotter with a two-way radio is
used to summon the truck, parked around the corner.
The registry now has
signs warning customers they will be towed from the lot and a
registry worker also announces the towing threat over the public
address system as customers wait in line.
Registrar Lyons said he
is aware of the parking problems and is trying to get the city of
Melrose --where he served as mayor from 1991-97 -- to allow
The registry is also
trying to lease parking close to the office to relieve the problem.
The state's nine
License Express Centers were created to process license renewals
exclusively -- and quickly.
But the service was
anything but express at the center at the Liberty Tree Mall in
On a Monday in June,
there were 35 people in line. The center is normally staffed by two
women. On this day only one was working. The other said her computer
A man in line was
overheard saying he drove by the Beverly registry but found the line
was so long he decided to try Danvers.
One woman who arrived
at 10:10 for a temporary license finally got it at 12:15, a
two-hour "express" wait.
A reporter visited the
Lawrence office one more time last Thursday, shortly before 11 a.m.
Every parking space was filled in the lot off South Union Street
near the Andover line. Cars were stopped on South Union Street,
poised for an opening.
And the line of people
stretching out the door was in for another shock two days before a
holiday weekend: Only two regular windows and another for license
suspensions were open.
Another reporter who
visited at 4:30 p.m. found about 70 people waiting to be served
inside and a line of 25 more stretched into the parking lot, though
five windows were not open.
On the plus side, two
more windows were opened as the 5 p.m. closing time approached and
customers were not turned away even after 5.
John Macone, Andrea
Holbrook and Ethan A. Paquin contributed to this report.
Next Story: Registry
stalls with release of records
Monday, July 5, 1999
Registry stalls with
release of records
The Registry of Motor
Vehicles lived up to its reputation for keeping people waiting when
it was asked for basic information about its operation.
For almost a week and a
half, registry officials dragged their feet and refused to answer
The Eagle-Tribune's questions about its revenues, customer service,
budget and staff.
Registry officials said
the information was hard to get and required significant research
time because some was stored in warehouses.
Some of the information
simply did not exist, they said.
But spokesmen for other
state agencies said the delay appeared to be retaliation for
stories the registry did not like.
"That's the kind of
thing I used to do 10 years ago," said one veteran spokesman at the
The registry's own
actions lent credence to the belief that the delay was deliberate.
After the Registry
accepted a verbal request for the information, a spokeswoman told a
reporter the next day the request had to be in writing.
The state normally has
10 days to reply once a written request is made, even when the
information is clearly public and readily available.
At The Eagle-Tribune's
request, a spokesman for the State Treasurer's office had an intern
find out how much money the registry raised in license and
registration fees over a 10-year period.
The intern produced the
information within a half hour.
But it took the
registry nine days to release an incomplete version of the same
information -- the registry said it only had figures going back to
By the end of last
week, spokesmen from the governor's office, the Executive Office of
Administration and Finance and the Executive Office of Public Safety
--which directly oversees the registry -- were calling the registry
and demanding the information be released.
The last pieces of
information were not released until 2 p.m. Friday, 10 days after
the first of what became daily calls.
In a conversation with
a reporter last Thursday, Registrar Richard D. Lyons made it clear
he had been following stories in The Eagle-Tribune about the
registry and was not pleased.
"I have no respect for
anyone at that paper," he said. "The manner of reporting has been
Mr. Lyons called the
reporter being informed by a top state official that The
Eagle-Tribune was investigating allegations leaked to the paper by
an anonymous source.
The source said that
top registry officials were investigating the driving records of
three Eagle-Tribune reporters who had done stories on the registry,
as well as the records of immediate family members.
Mr. Lyons denied any
such investigation was going on and said he would fire anyone who
would order such an investigation, despite the "potshots" from the
Wednesday, July 7, 1999
It's time to demand
The Registry of Motor
Vehicles rakes in “big money for Massachusetts” while its
That may be just the
way state officials like it, but we've had enough.
If it were a business,
the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles would be out of
Any private company
that charged its customers high prices and showed them as little
regard as the Registry does would be run out of town by its
But sadly for the
citizens of the Bay State, the Registry is not a private company. It
is instead a state-operated machine constructed to extract as much
cash as possible from its unfortunate "customers," the drivers of
Service is appalling at
the Registry by design.
How so? Improving
service costs money. Clerks would need to be hired. New, efficient
offices would have to be built at sensible locations with adequate
parking. A network of alternate locations to conduct Registry
business -- like the ones other states have at auto dealerships,
insurance offices and other convenient locations -- would have to
All that would cost too
much money and cut into the stream of cash the Registry pumps into
the state's coffers.
Reporter John Macone
found out just how much of a cash cow the Registry is. The agency
rakes in $14 in revenues for every $1 it spends on operations --
$807 million last year on a budget of $57.6 million. That's a
profit margin no private business can touch.
How does the Registry
do it? It's easy -- captive customers.
No matter how miserable
the service, how agonizing the lines, everyone who drives a car
must pay -- for registrations, driver's licenses, auto sales taxes.
But, unbelievably, some
say we're not paying enough. Some state senators and a political
think tank want the Registry to do away with lifetime licenses and
registrations -- both of which can renew without a fee or visit to
the Registry office.
To even suggest that
motorists pay more for the hassle the Registry inflicts upon them is
Instead of finding ways
for the Registry to collect more money, the Legislature and the
governor ought to be compelling the agency to spend more to improve
the service it provides to an acceptable level.
The Registry may be a
cash cow but we're the ones being milked dry.
And we're getting tired