Center copes with criticism

Published 12:00 am Saturday, September 11, 1999

Sharon Cunicelli said the criticism is hard to take.

Saturday, September 11, 1999

Sharon Cunicelli said the criticism is hard to take. As supervisor of Freeborn County’s license center, she said she’s heard her fair share.

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In the past months, county commissioners and area residents have questioned whether the county office is needed. Some opponents have said the the public would be better served by a a private office.

But, Cunicelli said it would be a different kind of service.

&uot;We are like a full service,&uot; she noted. &uot;A lot of your private offices do motor vehicles only.&uot;

While motor vehicle licenses, titles and tabs are a majority of the services provided by the courthouse staff, Cunicelli said many residents have come to expect more services from their license center.

Driver’s licenses, game and fish licenses and other services might not be available through a private office.

Cunicelli said many private offices opt not to provide driver’s licenses because of the expensive equipment required. As a result, the state would take over the driver’s license aspect of the county operation, if it privatized.

With the state in charge, she said local residents would only have about two days a week to get new licenses or renew old ones.

Other services Cunicelli said she’s seen private offices avoid are anything that is especially time consuming.

Since a private office is geared toward making money and only gets $3.50 per transaction, she said operators often want to do as many quick transactions as possible. Anything taking too long cuts into the profit, she said.

The Freeborn County supervisor said she’s seen many people bring in documents after visiting a private office first. They were told the private business didn’t know how to complete the needed tasks.

Cunicelli said she finds that hard to believe since everyone – private or public – undergoes the same training.

She said refusal to do a task likely means it’s too time consuming to generate a profit on a $3.50 transaction fee.

&uot;I don’t know, but that’s how I read it,&uot; she said.

That’s the big difference between private and public offices, Cunicelli added.

&uot;No matter what you’ve got, we try to help you,&uot; she said. &uot;To me, that’s service.&uot;

But, service has been an issue used to target the county-run center.

Cunicelli acknowledges that her office has a reputation for being unpleasant.

&uot;We’ve tried to change that image,&uot; she said. &uot;We try to greet people with a smile.

&uot;One of the girls that works for me said, ‘If we were anymore friendly, we’d have to serve lemonade.’&uot;

Still, she said she knows why the office and its employees get the reputation for being difficult – they have to say &uot;no.&uot;

If a person comes in without proper identification or a ruined title, there isn’t much the office can do, whether it’s public or private. State law is specific on needs for licenses and other paperwork.

&uot;I can’t change the law,&uot; she said.

She said her staff does what they can. They try to provide prompt and courteous service. If someone comes in with a need, they do their best to fill it, she said.

How long that will take depends on the task.

&uot;I have no control of the people that come through those doors,&uot; she points out.

Ideally, customers would have all needed documents and forms filled out. But, she said, it doesn’t always happen.

Likewise, she said the ideal would be a steady supply of customers through the month, but that’s not the case.

Between the 25th of one month and the 10th of the next, people in need of license plate tabs – due on the first – flood the counter.

&uot;Human nature is that you’re going to want to wait until the last minute,&uot; she said.

And, that’s what happens, putting it out of anyone’s control.

&uot;That’s their choice,&uot; she said of customers who wait until the month’s busiest period.

County Commissioner Dan Belshan said a recent visit to the license center demonstrated a need for change. He said while watching the staff work, he saw a need for greater efficiency.

&uot;They were very helpful, but a couple things could be improved,&uot; he said.

One change he said he wants to see is the adoption of a special &uot;tabs only&uot; line.

&uot;It would probably get rid of 80 percent of the line,&uot; he estimated.

But, Cunicelli said she’s already considered that option and is uncertain how to arrange such a line with the center’s current layout. There is only one door, for one line.

Belshan agreed remodeling might be needed to make the change.

&uot;I’d like to see the counter moved out,&uot; he said, noting such a change would make staff more visible to those waiting in line, possibly making the wait seem shorter.

&uot;The wait seems longer when you don’t see what’s going on,&uot; he said.

Other changes Belshan suggested included putting the telephones closer to the counter and rescheduling coffee breaks so only one person is gone at a time.

He said all options need to be discussed before a final choice is made on whether to keep the operation.

&uot;If we still have lines like that, maybe we need to look at privatization,&uot; he said.

Another commissioner who has visited the license center recently said he saw more paperwork than he expected being done in a 24-hour period.

&uot;It was very helpful for me to understand,&uot; Bob Berthelsen said of his visit behind the center’s counter.

In addition to seeing a vast amount of reports and other paperwork, he said he also saw staff members who were willing to help people and customers who didn’t seem too upset with their wait in line.

&uot;It was helpful for me from one standpoint to see 90 percent of the clients are in a good mood and the employees return that,&uot; he said.

Berthelsen noted a &uot;artificial situation&uot; could have been created by his presence, with staff putting their best foot forward, but he also noted the staff had no control of the amount of paperwork and types of people coming through the door during his visit.

He also said he took part of a second day to watch the line outside the license center. During his random observation, he said the longest line contained 10 people and took 30 minutes to clear.

Compared to some other lines, he said that’s not bad. As an example he mentioned one license center in the state is reportedly receiving state aid to lower waits to 30 minutes.

Still, proponents of a privatized office say flexible hours would likely help eliminate lines and allow more availability for customer service.

Cunicelli said longer hours would likely limit service, if anything.

State offices close at 4:30 p.m. and aren’t open on Saturday. Longer hours and weekend openings would mean the office would lack access to state resources often needed.

Commissioners are currently gathering information from other counties and plan a future workshop discussion on the possible privatization of the center.

In addition to Belshan and Berthelsen, Commissioner Dave Mullenbach has visited to Freeborn County center to observe staff at work recently.