Houston News & Search
Despite a two-year budget of $2.4 billion, the Texas Department of Public Safety, with little notice, has reduced office hours at 11 of the state’s busiest driver’s license offices and plans to lay off more than 100 full-time employees to deal with a $21 million funding crunch.
The statewide police agency’s primary function is to patrol state highways and issue drivers licenses, but in recent years has spent hundreds of millions on security operations along the 1,200-mile border with Mexico.
The effects of the reduced driver’s license hours were apparent on Monday morning, where nearly 200 customers formed a long, snaking line outside the large DPS facility at 12220 South Gessner. On June 5, the DPS abruptly scaled back operating hours from 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. to 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the large centers. The offices are still open after 5 p.m. on Tuesdays.
“I don’t think it’s good service,” said Derrick Williams, 39, who was waiting Monday to get his license re-instated. “They should open it a little earlier and not have these long lines.”
DPS by the numbers
$2.4 billion: Budget for FY 2018-19
$750 million (approx): Border security
$133 million: Driver’s License Division budget
80.5 percent: Increase in wait times at DPS Mega Centers, 2013-2015.
Sandai Sams arrived at the Gessner location at 6:45 a.m., hoping to get an early start on renewing her license. Instead, there was already a long line stretching from the locked front door, down the sidewalk and into the parking lot.
“I can understand them doing it at the smaller locations, but not at the larger offices were the majority of people come to, including people who drive a long way,” said Sams, who added DPS office hours were not listed correctly on mapping software. “I think the budget cuts are in the wrong areas.”
DPS spokesman Tom Vinger said Monday the department is not allowed to use funds set aside for border security to off set shortfalls in other areas of operation, like the drivers’ license division. The cuts were necessary after DPS was instructed by state legislators to reduce 2018-2019 funding for the division by four percent.
DPS management of the driver license operation has not only angered customers, it is being criticized by elected officials.
State Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, said DPS did not notify lawmakers of the reductions in driver’s license operations until after the Legislature adjourned late last month.
“We’re stuck now with a severe reduction in service hours, and employees, at multiple centers around the state, including two here in Houston in my district that we know are already overcrowded,” Whitmire said. “It’s pretty alarming – we leave after Sine Die (adjournment), and leave (DPS) a budget of $800 million for border security which involves essentially two border counties, and we leave $11 billion in the rainy day fund, and we have to tell people they’re going to have to stand in longer lines to get a driver license.”
The reduced hours are now in effect at four Houston-area locations – Gessner, Houston-North on Veterans Memorial Drive, the Rosenberg office and an office in Spring.
St. Sen. Jose Rodriguez, D-El Paso, issued a statement calling the DPS reductions “unacceptable” while questioning the huge expenditure along the Texas-Mexico border.
“DPS traditionally has had two major responsibilities – driver’s license applications and renewals, and highway safety patrols,” Rodriguez said. “We began giving it a new mission – ‘border security’ – several legislative sessions ago. That culminated in 2015 with a bill that formally established the mission and committed about $1 billion each session from our General Funds for DPS.”
Rodriguez noted that the Legislative Budget Board, in 2015, raised concerns about the lack of oversight and accountability of the DPS border operations.
“Given this context, it is unacceptable for DPS to fail to fully provide a basic public service for Texas taxpayers,” he said.
DPS executives, in a May 31st e-mail to legislators and their staff obtained by the Houston Chronicle, explained that reductions in staff hours at 11 offices, along with closing two drivers’ license offices in Dallas and laying off 108 full time employees, were necessary after the 2018-2019 funding for the division was reduced by four percent, or $7 million, in the upcoming state budget that begins Sept. 1. Legislators were also told by DPS there is an anticipated “shortfall” of $14 million in the operating budget of the drivers’ license division during this fiscal year.
In the e-mail, DPS also told legislators there are significant overtime costs associated with its policy of serving all customers who were physically in the building at closing time.
During a visit to the Gessner office on Monday, DPS spokesman Lt. Craig Cummings said that policy would not change.
“If the customer is in the building before it closes, they’ll get served,” Cummings said.
Cummings said people with disabilities would be given a place at the head of the line, and urged customers to renew their licenses online or call land make an appointment to come in to renew a license, Cummings noted.
Standing in the long line Monday was John Charles, 41, an immigrant from Tanzania, who said he got to the office on Gessner at 6:25 a.m. to get an early start. He can’t renew his license on line because of the additional paperwork DPS required of immigrants.
“It depends on who it favors,” Charles said of the reduced hours. “I like to come in early, but maybe for some who get here at 8 a.m. this is okay.”
Rodriguez, the El Paso legislator, said “cutting back on overtime for driver’s license services for Texas taxpayers, while we pay millions to DPS for ‘border security’ overtime, again illustrates the departure of DPS from its core public service functions. The budget just approved by the Legislature has $145.6 million for statewide DPS overtime, yet they now want to cut service to the millions of Texans who depend on the agency?”
Chronic problems at the DPS drivers license division have shown little improvement in recent years, despite a division that currently has 230 locations around the state and 2,100 employes, according a report by the Legislative Budget Board.
Since 2012, the Legislature has given DPS an infusion of $310 million as part of a Driver License Improvement Plan, and eight “mega centers” officers were opened around the state between 2013 and 2015. But the average wait times for an original, non-commercial drivers license rose from 36 to 65 minutes, an 80 percent increase, according to a January 2017 report by the Legislative Budget Board.
At the Gessner center, the 1 hour, 11-minute wait in 2013 to get an original drivers license went to 1 hours and 45 minutes in 2015, the LBB report notes.
“Performance measure results show that the Department of Public Safety failed to meet the targeted wait times for driver license offices in fiscal years 2014, 2015, and 2016,” the LBB reported.
St. Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, a former Harris County tax collector, said DPS could alleviate overtime expenses by being more flexible in allowing employees to stagger their start times.
“The key point is to balance your workforce against the actual demand for in-person driver’s license services on a weekly basis,” said Bettencourt in a statement released by his office.
By doing that, and increasing online services, Bettencourt said he was able to handle county vehicles registrations as demand rose, but without having to increase his budget.
“I will be making those recommendations in writing to the department head this week.”
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