The methods of doing business have changed markedly in the Wright County Government Center over the last month, but it hasn’t stopped the demand for service, especially at the county’s license bureau.
The public counters have been closed since March 17, but it hasn’t slowed down the amount of business that is taking place, despite being shorthanded. License Bureau Supervisor Becky Aanerud said that the phones keep ringing with questions and requests – to the point that the staff started tracking the calls coming in with some startling results.
“We try to answer every call, but on any given day, we’ve got four people and 10 phones lines – some of them are going to go to voicemail,” Aanerud said. “We’ve been keeping track of the number of calls and also keeping track of what they’re requesting.”
The sheer volume of calls is what has shocked Aanerud. Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, Aanerud estimated that her office fielded about 40-50 calls a day. She decided to quantify how the phones in the license bureau have been ringing off the hook. From March 30 to April 14 – the span of 11 working days, her office fielded 1,158 calls.
As expected, most of the calls dealt with the availability of license tabs and questions about driver’s license renewals. Aanerud and her staff have explained many times how the process is going to play out when her office is allowed to fully reopen.
“Once the pandemic emergency declaration has expired, driver’s licenses that have expired during the closure period, those people will have 60 days from the end of the month it expires,” Aanerud said. “What that means is that, if the emergency declaration expires May 4 like the current order says, people would have 60 days from the end of May – basically through July 30 – to get the driver’s license updated before it would be a violation.”
Eventually the day is coming that business will return to normal – whether it’s a phased-in return to serving the public directly or a full reopening to how operations took place before the public counter closure.
One thing Aanerud knows is that when the current closure is lifted, there is the potential for the chaos outside the license bureau that there was prior to the county board declaring a state of emergency that immediately shut down the bureau March 17. Residents are going to need service and will likely be returning the Government Center in big numbers when the option becomes available. Aanerud said there is a lot of behind-the-scenes game-planning going on to determine the best course of action when the counters are reopened because they’re going to need to have an operations plan ready to go when it happens.
“We’re looking at several different options at this time, because we know the lines are going to come back when we reopen,” Aanerud said. “I’ve been running the gamut of discussing alternatives to what we’ve had in the past with the line in the hallway and how to address it. The problem that comes with it is that it seems like each scenario we’ve discussed has a flaw to it. We want to keep the public safe, but we want to keep our staff safe, too. It’s been a problem that we’re trying to solve and we don’t have all the answers yet.”
Until then, the drop boxes at the main entrance and in front of the license bureau are the only options available to residents and they’re being used. Aanerud estimated that her office processes about 50 requests a day – primarily license tab renewals and title transfers. Even if they wanted to try to schedule appointments for driver’s licenses photos, they can’t because the state has shut down the system they use to process the licenses.
She said her office will continue to process as many things as it can under the circumstances, adding that it is key for residents to include a phone number on their request in the event there is missing information.
We know at a minimum that the current stay in place order will continue through May 4. It’s unclear whether the executive order will expire and business will return to its previous state, if there will be conditions placed for a gradual reopening or if the stay in place order will be extended again. Regardless of the decision, the license bureau staff will be ready – regardless of which option is chosen.
“There is still a lot of uncertainty as to how long the public closure will last,” Aanerud said. “We know that with the backlog that has built by not being able to process driver’s licenses, we’re going to have crowd issues that we’re going to have to address with social distancing still being an issue. We’re looking at the different options and we will end up choosing the one we feel is the best option for processing requests quickly while trying to keep the public and our employees as safe as we can.”