Kansas executive promises accountability, 'holding feet to the fire' while fixing DMV debacle

TOPEKA, Kan. - More than three months after Kansas taxpayers shelled out $40 million for a new computer system, lines at some DMV offices remain long and customer complaints keep coming.

Emails obtained by 41 Action News reveal a behind-the-scenes look at the frustration felt across the state when the system debuted in May.

Meantime, the man in charge of the massive upgrade, Revenue Secretary Nick Jordan, is promising accountability when it comes to smoothing out the DMV debacle.

Emails show frustration and PR battle

41 Action News obtained all of DMV Director Donna Shelite's emails from the week the system went live in early May.

Almost immediately, there were signs of exasperation from county treasurers.

The Geary County treasurer wrote to Shelite: "Say a prayer for our continued diligence getting through this for everyone."

From the Ford County treasurer: "Something has to give. My staff and I are stressed beyond imagination as well as other counties. I know you have been working hard, but I am concerned for those of us working 10-14 hour days that someone is going to get sick or worse."

And in Riley County, the treasurer finished an email to Shelite with a desperate "Please help," punctuated by 38 exclamation points.

As news of computer glitches and office shutdowns spread, Shelite's emails also reveal contrasting PR messages.

On May 8, the first day the 3M computer system went live, Shelite wrote to Department of Revenue spokeswoman Jeannine Koranda about some of the negative publicity, especially in Johnson County.

"Let's get together and draft an article that is positive and showing the numbers of transactions we processed," Shelite wrote. "We also need to make sure we counter the bit about Johnson County closing because of technical issues."

Even though the Johnson County DMV closed early that day, a 3M employee stationed at the office painted a positive picture of the transition.

"Great news!" the employee wrote. "They were very happy."

41 Action News made the open-records request for emails immediately after the system's first week. However, it took the State more than two months to provide the documents.

Responding to criticism

Revenue Secretary Nick Jordan sat down with 41 Action News to answer questions about the much-maligned computer system.

Jordan said July was a better month and transaction numbers are up compared to last year. However, critics argue that is because workers at DMV offices have been working overtime to catch up.

"We're not trying to whitewash anything. There have been issues," Jordan said. "I don't want to give the impression that we are totally satisfied or are in a perfect spot yet."

When Gov. Sam Brownback's administration took office in 2011, the DMV computer transition was originally only six months away.

After review, Jordan said "bugs" in the system still needed to be worked out and he did not feel comfortable with the timeline. Memos show he and 3M mutually agreed to push back the "go live" date two times.

Despite those delays, the system had a rocky start. Glitches and shutdowns caused gridlock at DMV offices around the state. Jordan said the experience provided an important lesson.

"Make sure you test everything to the Nth degree," he said. "We felt we did that, but next time, we'll probably test it even harder."

Why haven't there been penalties?

The State still has not paid 3M the final ten percent of its $25 million contract.

In late June, Jordan sent a non-conformance letter to the company, saying the system was too slow, too prone to crashes, and still had too many bugs. The letter identified four different deficiencies with the system.

"We have not achieved five consecutive days of conformance with regard to these four measures," Jordan wrote.

The contract with 3M detailed performance guarantees, which would allow the State to assess penalties if the company did not meet standards or established deadlines . Certain penalties could be up to $1 million.

However, the State has not taken that step, and has been reluctant to explain why.

In May, prior to reviewing the specifics of the contract, 41 Action News sent an email to Koranda to inquire about potential penalties.

"I know what the penalties are," Koranda wrote to Shelite. "What would you like me to say?"

The response received by 41 Action News: "I don't have that information readily available."

When asked about the penalties, Jordan said maintaining a good relationship with 3M is crucial to fixing the problems.

"Right now, we just have to get the system right," Jordan said. "We're working every contractual step we can work to get that system proper and that's all I can say about it. We will keep holding their feet to the fire."

Moving forward, Jordan said his top priority is improving a system "slowness" issue, so time spent by customers at DMV counters is reduced.

Adjusting to a new business model

Meantime, county treasurers are doing their best to play the cards dealt by the State.

In Johnson

County, commissioners approved the hiring of 16 additional DMV employees at a cost of $800,000.

"It has been challenging, to say the least," Johnson County treasurer Tom Franzen said. "There's light at the end of the tunnel, but I think what we're learning is we may have to change the way we do business."

For taxpayers like Jeff Kocen, the DMV dilemma has become a personal crusade. The Johnson County resident has made several voluntary trips to the DMV to speak with customers about their experiences.

"People have taken their entire day off work, sometimes more than once," Kocen said. "That's lost wages for them. These are people who cannot take a day off just to go sit in line."

Kocen even launched a website called, " Fixksdmv ." He is not shy about voicing his criticism about how the transition was handled by state leaders in Topeka. Kocen believes Jordan and Shelite should resign.

"It's called modernization. Where's the modernization? Where's the efficiency? It doesn't seem to have modernized anything at this point," Kocen said. "I expect more from our leaders."

What is next?

The new computer system for vehicle renewal and title work was only the first phase of a two-phase project.

An upgrade dealing with driver's licenses was scheduled to roll out on August 1. However, Jordan said that phase has been indefinitely put on hold until the current problems are smoothed out.

In July, a legislative committee approved an audit of the DMV system conversion . That report is not expected to be complete until next year, though.

Jordan said August is the first month without a grace period for customers. As a result, transaction numbers returning to more normal levels, which he considers a "positive trend."

Tips for avoiding the headache

Drivers who need to renew their tags are urged to complete the transaction online or by mail. To encourage this, Kansas recently started waiving fees for payment.

The announcement came in the wake of a letter sent to Brownback by Johnson County commissioners .

Franzen said his DMV offices are already noticing a shift in customer behavior.

If people need to go to a DMV office for title work, Johnson County residents can reserve a spot online or by phone. That way, people can run errands or do work until their turn in line is closer.

Franzen said there is a misperception that customers need a cell phone or text-messaging service to use this option. People can also reserve their spot on a landline phone by calling 1-888-956-2657.

Ryan Kath can be reached at ryan.kath@kshb.com. You can also follow him on Twitter or connect with him on Facebook.

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