He had 16 quarters for the parking meter outside and an iPod loaded with tunes and still Trae Schwenneker was ill-prepared for his man-versus-machine staredown at the county motor vehicle office.
"Ninety-two….?" The voice traveled around two bends in the Yellowstone County Courthouse hallway, past 38 people in various angles of repose, slumping, slouching, sleeping, clutching their vehicle title information and waiting for their numbers to be called.
"Ninety-two…?" No takers.
After a two-day, statewide shutdown in the Montana vehicle registration and titling system, the wait today for Schwenneker and other customers at the Yellowstone County Treasurer and Assessor's office was two hours long. And that was for customers who didn't surrender in frustration.
"I brought a pocket full of change for the ticket meters outside and my iPod. I guess I'm ready," said Schwenneker, who had waited about 45 minutes and was still 53 numbers from being served, though clearly several people in front of him had left.
There were 42 customers in front of Holly Bruce, who wasn't going anywhere. The temporary window sticker on her mini van expired May 29, the day the Justice Department shut down its new computerized title system so private contractor 3M and state officials could work out some bugs in the $21 million system, known as the Montana Enhanced Registration and Licensing System, or MERLIN.
The new system allows vehicle registrations to be renewed online, pairs up driver's license data with title information and should improve county processing of vehicle registration and titles, according to the Justice Department.
But the new system has slowed the process since it was rolled out in April, said Max Lenington, Yellowstone County Treasurer and Assessor. Title work that used to take 15 seconds now takes two minutes. Spread over an entire day, those minutes become hours. Lenington's clerks have been running into overtime to keep up with the county's monthly flow of 13,000 vehicle registrations and renewals.
"We've been working 11-hour days, from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. since April," Lenington said.
He said he's seen no improvement in the system since the state shut it down Friday. Part of the problem, Lenington said, is that all 56 Montana counties switched to the system simultaneously, which flooded the system's technical support staff of roughly a half dozen people in Helena. When something goes wrong, only the Helena staff can work out the kinks, Lenington said. It takes about half an hour to get a problem resolved.
Meanwhile, the number of motorists buzzing around the state with expired plates or non-transferred titles is climbing. People generally wait until month's end to renew their vehicle registration. Three days into June, clerk Cristy Price was still slogging through mail renewals from May. The process that used to involve opening only one computer window, now involves opening five, she said. The office used to process 350 registration renewals submitted by mail daily. Price said currently her office will be lucky to complete 200 mailed in renewals a day.
The state argues that the new system may increase the renewal times, but that more work is being done at that stage. Taxes and fees are being sorted and distributed up front. That's work that used take up time on the back end of the process.
The Legislature has approved $28 million for project since 2003. In that time, contractors have come and gone-one filed for bankruptcy. State employees have been hired to work on the project, but then been laid off.
The state still has $6 million or $7 million to spend on the project, which it plans to extend to driver's license records.
In Billings, the lines aren't getting shorter.