Last January, after an ugly contract dispute, the state Department of Motor Vehicles lost half of the AAA offices that had been renewing Connecticut driver’s licenses for more than a decade.
This meant that more than 150,000 customers a year, who had been handling their renewals the easy way, would descend on already-overburdened DMV branch offices.
And now those returning customers have again endured the kind of delays that plagued the introduction of a supposedly-improved DMV computer system in summer 2015.
And so, in an attempt to remedy the problem, the DMV issued a public solicitation a few days ago to try to enlist a business, or businesses, to enter a state contract to renew licenses in Fairfield and New Haven counties, and perhaps beyond.
The deadline for would-be contractors’ submissions is Oct. 16, and the DMV expects contract negotiations to be complete by January.
The department’s latest difficulties have emerged since Dec. 31, when its contract expired with AAA Northeast, the motor club affiliate that for 16 years had been processing license renewals in eight offices — in Branford, Danbury, Fairfield, Hamden, Milford, Norwalk, Stamford and Waterbury.
AAA Northeast was one of two, independent auto club affiliates in Connecticut renewing licenses. The other, AAA Allied, has never interrupted its continuing license-renewal service at its offices in Avon, Cromwell, Enfield, Manchester, Old Saybrook, Plainville, Waterford and West Hartford.
But the loss of the eight AAA Northeast locations was enough to cause problems — because from 2011 to 2016 AAA Northeast had processed 700,000 driver’s license renewals, growing from 80,000 in 2011 to 150,000 in 2016.
That burden got dumped back into DMV offices this year, and at some of them — particularly those in Bridgeport, Hamden and Old Saybrook — customers have had to wait two or three hours to conduct their business.
Something had to be done — and now the DMV has posted a “Request for Qualifications” on its official website, in hopes of getting a new license-renewal contractor on the job early next year.
“The Commissioner is soliciting one or more contractors to renew [license and identification card] credentials … and to issue duplicate credentials to the general public … on behalf of DMV in Fairfield and New Haven counties,” the solicitation says.
“Our reason for replacing the eight AAA offices is to provide strong customer service and reduce wait times in DMV offices,” said DMV spokesman William Seymour. “We want to see ideas, innovation, without restricting to an exact kind of business or organization.”
There’s been widespread speculation that the DMV might look to big grocery store chains — such as those that have bank branches in the stores — or other businesses with multiple offices to replace the AAA Northeast offices. But Seymour would not comment on that.
Registration Renewals, Too?
The new public solicitation also includes renewal of motor vehicle registrations outside the DMV’s regular branches, which has been talked about but never introduced at any of the AAA offices.
Seymour said that “we are not at this point looking to do that,” but “we want to keep that option open.”
Just when the endless lines of customers were abating at DMV offices — after the problem-plagued computer system started working right, Seymour said — the lines started to lengthen again this year.
DMV noticed that customers started driving from the Greenwich area to Old Saybrook, where there’s a DMV branch and an AAA Allied office, and even to an AAA Allied office in Cromwell, Seymour said.
The state’s contractual relationship with AAA Northeast unraveled in the final months of 2016 amid harsh words between state officials and AAA Northeast’s president and CEO, Mark Shaw.
Last fall, Shaw said his offices were overwhelmed by the increasing burdens of the contract that required him to renew licenses for both AAA members and nonmembers.
In early October, AAA Northeast briefly stopped letting nonmembers renew their licenses at its eight locations.
But then Gov. Dannel P. Malloy threatened a breach of contract lawsuit, and Shaw agreed to continue serving nonmembers through the contract's conclusion at year's end, while negotiations for a new two-year pact continued.
But those talks ultimately couldn’t reconcile disagreements exemplified by an email sent to DMV Commissioner Michael Bzdyra on Dec. 22 — in which Shaw said that "our ONLY reason to change the program is because we are unable to handle the volume of transactions. We have explained that the volume has more than doubled, the transaction time has doubled and the nonmember activity has increased to near 50%."
In the end, Shaw criticized Bzdyra as an official who "negotiates out of both sides of his mouth” — an assertion that Bzdyra declined to respond to — and DMV equipment was removed from AAA Northeast’s offices early this year.
To qualify for the new contract, a business must have at least two existing locations in New Haven and/or Fairfield counties where it would conduct DMV transactions for at least 24 hours a week, during any of the following times: Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., and Saturday from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m.
The contractor could collect a fee of up to $5 per transaction that it processes for the DMV.
There would have to be at least one employee dedicated to the DMV work, and the department would train and screen such employees — including a fingerprint background check.
At least 24 square feet would be required to accommodate a camera and other equipment, as well as counter or desk space. The business would have to agree to DMV audits.
“Additional weight” would be given to businesses with: “multiple established locations within Fairfield and New Haven counties; plans for expansion in those counties or in other counties within Connecticut that would have the potential to serve DMV customer”; “surveillance equipment in the areas where DMV equipment and supplies are located that is able to capture and record DMV transactions”; and “underlying business that involves secure document handling, emphasis on financial transactions and rigorous employee screening and training in these areas.”
Jon Lender is a reporter on The Courant's investigative desk, with a focus on government and politics. Contact him at email@example.com, 860-241-6524, or c/o The Hartford Courant, 285 Broad St., Hartford, CT 06115 and find him on Twitter@jonlender.