MISSOULA — After several frustrating summers with long waits and dissatisfied customers, Missoula County has unveiled a new program allowing owners to title and register their vehicle while avoiding a trip to the treasurer’s office.
Tyler Gernant, the county’s clerk and treasurer, said the process can now be handled through an email program established last month.
“We were really desperate to find ways to lower the wait time in our office, because we get really busy over the summer, and sometimes wait times go over two hours,” Gernant said. “It wasn’t a sustainable thing for our community or for our office.”
In recent summers, those looking to register a new vehicle often endured lines that could take several hours to navigate. But when new tools became available late last year, the county moved to improve its system.
It started implementing the program around November and had the software in place in December. Gernant believes Missoula County is the first in the state to offer the new service. Documents can be filled out and signed electronically.
“Instead of having to come into the office to receive plates and title, you can go online and fill out an application,” he said. “We send you an invoice via email or text message that you can pay. Once you do that, we will mail you your plates. The Montana Department of Justice has always mailed the title later, so you’ll get that from Helena.”
Customer complaints grew in frequency in the summer of 2018, as wait times sometimes last four hours or more. The county blamed the problem on the Montana Enhanced Registration and Licensing Information Network – the state computer system also known as MERLIN.
That led to frustrations by customers and the county employees who had to deal with them.
“We lost a lot of staff that year because it was a challenging work environment,” Gernant said. “When the tools you have aren’t working, it’s really difficult to do your job.”
While those buying a vehicle from a private seller will still need to appear in person, those buying from a dealership can skip the lines and complete their title over the internet. Gernant thinks it will lead to greater customer satisfaction, along with that of county employees.
“Right now, it’s strict when our employees can take breaks and go to lunch and how many employees we have to have at the window,” he said. “The more people we can get doing it through this online process, the more flexible we can be in our work hours, which also helps with employee retention and keeping people happy.”
The county implemented a system last year, which notified customers via text when their turn was approaching at the counter, meaning they could avoid sitting around the treasurer’s office for hours on end.
While the county titles and registers around 2,500 vehicles a month in the winter, the numbers climb to more than 3,500 in the summer months. Registration renewals can also be handled online, so long as the customer meets the state-imposed deadline.
If that deadline is missed, the customer must appear in person, though Gernant said that too could change.
“Once you pass that window, you have to physically come in to get your tags, and I think the state has some reasons for that,” he said. “But we’re looking at making it possible so if you pass that window, you can still do it online or by calling us, and we can mail the tags if you’re not actively driving with expired tags.”