Limited Taxation

Thursday, July 8, 1999

Bigger and bigger state budgets, more and more over-taxation revenue surpluses, money piling up in ever-expanding "rainy day" funds, additional billions coming in from the "tobacco settlement" taxpayer reimbursement, and what does the Beacon Hill cabal want to do, give some of it back?

What are you, crazy?

They want to pick your pockets, of course, and take even more of your money! Ladies and gentlemen, this is still the People's Republic of Taxachusetts, where the political battle cry of the takers and the greedy is "More Is Never Enough!"

Do you think the pols intend to ever voluntarily give us back any of our money when they're instead scheming and plotting how to stick us up for yet even more?

The Boston Globe today reported ("Phone fee eyed to help fund enhanced 911" by Peter J. Howe, excerpted below) a new "fee" ploy is being discussed on Beacon Hill, an additional two dollars a year on your phone bill(s).

And the Lawrence Eagle-Tribune just published its expose of the Registry of Motor Vehicles (further below) ... and it's worse than we'd imagined, if that's possible! The Registry raked in $807 million last year but its operating budget (the "cost of proving the service" above which it legally is not permitted to charge) was only $57.6 million -- and still the pols want to increase RMV fees!

The only way oppressed taxpayers will ever see any relief is to take it back ourselves from the greedy and selfish on Beacon Hill.

CFord-Sig2.gif (4854 bytes)

Chip Ford

Massachusetts lawmakers are moving toward recommending a new $2-a-year fee on Bay State telephone users to shore up deficits in a fund that pays for enhanced 911 emergency call services across the state, officials said yesterday. ...

"Don't you think it's worth that price to be able to call for emergency help from any telephone in the state?" Morrissey said. "It's saving lives, so don't you think everybody should share that cost? Every phone has as much chance of calling 911 as any other phone."

His House counterpart, Representative Daniel E. Bosley, a North Adams Democrat, also backs this approach. "There really is no correlation between 411 and 911," Bosley said last week. "We should just be honest about this thing and put a charge on every phone bill."

It is unclear whether the new fee might be portrayed as a tax, which Governor Paul Cellucci would likely veto, rather than a user fee. Wyndham Lewis, spokesman for the state Department of Telecommunications and Energy, said yesterday the administration had no comment on the issue....

Excerpts from The Boston Globe
Thursday, July 8, 1999



Monday, July 5, 1999

No competition, no regard


By John Macone

Eagle-Tribune Writer


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 about $14.


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 customer service.


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 profit.


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 Registry.


"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, he said.


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 store."


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 agencies.


The goal is to improve service while cutting expenses even more.


But there are problems with that.


According to the registry's own survey, only about half of its customers have Internet access.


That leaves about 2.5 million people who would either have to call the phone bank or visit an office.


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 system.


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 said.


"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 said.


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 Initiative."


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 licenses.


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 67 years.


President Michael 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. Widmer.


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 the settlement.


"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 Bill Murphy

Eagle-Tribune Writers


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 customers.


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  said.


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 office opened.


Registry spokeswoman 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 Registry.


"If you're not here by 8:30 a.m. outside, you can plan on being here two to three hours,"  she said.




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 inside.


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 much longer.


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 a.m.


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 Beverly."


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  served.


With license 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 profanities.


"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 on-street parking.


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 Danvers.


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 was down.


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  Statehouse.


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 1994.


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  so biased."


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 newspaper.




Wednesday, July 7, 1999

It's time to demand better



The Registry of Motor Vehicles rakes in “big money for Massachusetts” while its "customers"  suffer.



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  business.


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 competitors.


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 Massachusetts.


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 be  established.


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 preposterous.


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 of it.

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