Nobody questions that COVID-19 has impacted the lives of Wright County residents over the last year – from shelter-in-place orders to mask mandates. But, in some instances, the changes created by COVID have resulted in positive changes in terms of conducting business.
With the mask mandate now lifted, many have wondered if the Wright County License Center would return to what it was pre-COVID – often a line of 20-30 people waiting in the same line to make different transactions. Wright County officials have decided to continue the process of having an appointment schedule to speed up the process for almost 300 people a week renewing or upgrading driver’s licenses, having non-driver’s license renewal transactions able to be completed at the outdoor walk-up window, having drop boxes available for customers to have their items mailed back to them and the ability to handle walk-up customers who don’t have an appointment.
“I think there is disconnect some people have in that they’re blurring all of 2020,” Wright County License Center Supervisor Jessie Gadach said. “They’re not remembering that when they came here in 2019, they were in a line – often a very long line. Some of them seem to think that prior to COVID, they just walked in and got served immediately. That wasn’t the case. There was a line that often stretched almost all the way down the hall. If you came in for tab renewals, which take about five minutes, you were still waiting in line behind people who were getting REAL ID, which is much more time-consuming. Now we have people with appointments who are in and out in a few minutes. When you wait in a line for 45 minutes to an hour, nobody is happy.”
There is a misconception that all driver’s license renewals are being done by appointment. Gadach estimated that, although the two-week appointment schedules that open at 8 a.m. every other Friday fill up relatively quickly, it represents only 40 percent of the driver’s license renewals that are done. The other 60 percent are walk-ups, who, on busy days, may have to wait 30-45 minutes to get to the counter.
COVID-19 protocols were what required Wright County to change its procedures – starting an appointment system for the narrow hallway leading up to the License Center and constructing a walk-up window on the south parking deck of the Government Center for non-license renewal transactions. Wright County Finance Director Lindsey Meyer said that, over time, License Center staff was able to streamline the appointment process and make the most of a bad situation.
“This was a system that COVID forced on us because we couldn’t accomplish social distancing in the hallway leading up to the License Center,” Meyer said. “What we learned from the implementation of the scheduling system is that our customers seem much happier because they can come in at their scheduled time and are out the door in less than 15 minutes. Before COVID, if you came to our office, you were typically in line between 30 minutes and an hour.”
Unlike many other License Centers throughout the state, Wright County has been open throughout the pandemic. While a state shutdown created a backlog of driver’s license renewals, the Wright County License Center was not operational for just one week throughout the 15-month pandemic.
“It’s been a process that we’ve worked with and improved as we’ve gone through this last year,” Gadach said. “We’ve been fully staffed the whole time – we were only closed for five days because the state closed down all transactions. For the first couple of months, we were appointment only. That was hurting us because if we had no-shows, we had nobody at the window. Once we figured out the timing of processing transactions, we were able to expand to limited walk-ins. As we’ve gone further along, we have more walk-in customers than appointments because we’ve been able to fine-tune the process as we’ve went along.”
Some may contend with the mask mandate lifted that license bureaus should return to how business was conducted before COVID. In the case of Wright County, the changes made have sped up the process both for those renewing licenses and those with other License Center transactions. It was determined the best course of action would be to continue the current appointment-priority process until the License Center is relocated to the new Government Center in January, where it will be much larger and more automated to get customers to the counter.
“Our job is to provide the best service we can to the customer,” Gadach said. “The addition of the outside walk-up window for transactions has helped speed up the process because we’re running two lines. If you’re here for a title transfer or tabs, your line is only people getting similar service outside at the walk-up window. The same goes for license renewals inside. You may be in a waiting line, but it doesn’t include those who are coming for other services.”
The walk-up hours for license renewals are 8-11 a.m. and 1-3 p.m. weekdays. For other transactions, the outside walk-up window is open from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. weekdays. Those coming to the Government Center are advised that Friday is the worst day of the week to conduct business because wait times are consistently longer than other days.
In January, moving into the new Government Center will be a game-changer for the License Center, as residents will be assigned a number and windows will be open for specific transactions to keep each line moving at its normal pace. Until then, the county will continue its current process of scheduling by appointment.
“At the end of the day, the system we have in place is more controlled and is more fine-tuned to provide service for what the customer has come for – whether inside or outside – and the customer is happier,” Gadach said. “When you have 25 people in a line when you turn the corner to get to our office, the customer is already frustrated. By the time they get to the counter, no matter what kind of customer service we provide, most were very frustrated. Some people may want us to go back to the way it was pre-COVID, but we hope they remember how maddening a long line could be and that working with this for a year, this system works more efficiently and quickly than going back to what we used to do.”