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Revenue alternatives sought for Registry

By Peter Schworm
Globe Staff / January 27, 2012
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State transportation officials said yesterday they did not expect a proposed $15 million budget cut to force layoffs or branch closings at the Registry of Motor Vehicles, expressing confidence they could defray the lost revenue by selling online advertisements and leasing surplus property.

Yet the spending cut, announced Wednesday as part of Governor Deval Patrick’s $32.3 billion proposed budget, could affect service at the state’s 30 Registry branches if revenue falls short.

“We believe we can manage this reduction by generating new revenues,’’ Richard Davey, the state’s transportation secretary, said in a statement. “Only if we are unable to generate the entire amount of revenue needed to absorb the cut will we look to reduce services.’’

Patrick’s spending plan calls for a $15 million cut to the Transportation Department, which could reduce spending elsewhere to minimize the impact on the Registry, officials said.

Cutting the Registry’s budget can be politically risky, because longer waits at branches often stir public frustration.

In response to reports on the potential impact of the budget cut, Davey said that many news outlets had incorrectly reported that the cut would result in “longer wait times and service reductions.’’

But in 2009, a $13 million budget cut forced the Registry to close 11 branch offices, leading to longer waits. In another cost-cutting measure, the Registry in 2008 stopped mailing notices of license renewals, saving $800,000, though it later introduced an automated message system for renewal reminders.

To reduce delays, the registry has urged drivers to conduct their business online and has forged a partnership with AAA that allows members to perform transactions at six club offices. Last year, average wait times fell sharply, from nearly 30 minutes to 13, according to the registry.

Registrar Rachel Kaprielian said the Registry would not be able to absorb millions in cuts without compromising service and would rely on increased revenue to offset the loss. Otherwise, the Registry would cut spending as necessary, she said.

“It would be staff; it would be branches; it would be a combination of decisions,’’ she said. “We’ve taken cuts over the years, and we’ve managed them.’’

Kaprielian said waiting times in Massachusetts are substantially lower than in most other states, although the number of branches and employees has been pared in recent years.

Nearly 3 million transactions were conducted through the Registry’s website last year, a large audience for potential advertisers. The Transportation Department also has a substantial inventory of property that could be sold or leased, officials said, though the state declined to say how much money the properties are likely worth.

The Transportation Department has been exploring the possibility of raising more revenue in anticipation of budget cuts, officials said.

The House and Senate will each propose their own budgets in the coming months. The budget year begins in July. The chairmen of the Legislature’s Transportation Committee, Thomas McGee and William Straus, could not be reached for comment.

As the Registry has expanded the number of transactions that can be done electronically, drivers have increasingly turned to the convenience of the Web. Still, approximately one-third of visitors who go to the Registry could have conducted their business online, Kaprielian said.

State officials said they will continue to encourage motorists to go online whenever possible as part of a broader effort to streamline government through technology.

“We have to start doing things differently in a whole host of areas, and that is not just government doing things differently,’’ Patrick said Wednesday. “It is asking citizens to interact with their government differently, not less, but just differently.’’

Davey reiterated the point yesterday, saying, “It no longer makes sense for many people to go to an RMV branch to conduct the same transactions they can do in minutes from their home computers.’’

For those who need or prefer to show up in person, the AAA offices have proved a popular alternative, said Lloyd Albert of AAA Southern New England. Transactions last year were up 35 percent from the year before, he said. “The word is getting out, I think,’’ he said. “The wait is usually under five minutes.’’

In Rhode Island, more than half of all license renewals last year were done at an AAA office, Albert said. “The upside in Massachusetts is substantial.’’

Peter Schworm can be reached at schworm@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globepete.

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