Balky database means renewing your driver’s license might be an ordeal

Manatee County’s new driver license office, 904 301 Blvd. W., Bradenton
Manatee County’s new driver license office, 904 301 Blvd. W., Bradenton Photo via Facebook

Thousands of Florida motorists have been unable to register cars and trucks and renew driver’s licenses because of breakdowns in a creaky but critical database that stores millions of driving records.

Tax collectors, the elected county officials who issue tags and licenses, say they are fed up with the problems and are demanding that the state agree to a schedule of deadlines to prevent future system crashes.

“Our customers are livid,” Hillsborough Tax Collector Doug Belden wrote in an email. “There appears to be a major problem.”

Belden’s chief information technology expert, Kirk Sexton, calls the repeated crashes “severe” and says the state should focus on shoring up the unreliable database that is critical to so many government functions. Driver’s license information is used to verify someone’s identity, from voting to eligibility for benefits.

“If you’re verifying the credentials of anybody with a driver’s license, you’re hitting that database,” Sexton said. “It’s pretty critical to anything that’s motor vehicle- or ID-related in the state.”

The latest crash came Friday, as the state was relying on driver’s license numbers to frantically complete the verifications of more than 116,000 people who registered to vote between Oct. 11-18. The state said voter registrations weren’t disrupted by the breakdown, and Marion County Supervisor of Elections Wesley Wilcox, an information technology expert, agreed.

“I saw no slowdown on our side at all,” Wilcox said.

In addition, elections supervisors say the data problems aren’t interfering with voting, which began at the polls this week and by mail earlier this month.

Friday’s breakdown lasted through Saturday. People who logged onto the system saw an alert that said “not a planned outage,” said a spokesman with the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, which runs the system.

“Totally unacceptable,” Manatee County Tax Collector Ken Burton told his colleagues.

Burton said employees who deal with customers reported a system breakdown, on average, once every four days between April 1 and Sept. 30 of this year.

Modernizing the system is the top priority of the highway safety agency. It got nearly $8 million from the Legislature in this year’s budget to start the work. The agency is working with the Agency for State Technology on the improvements.

“It’s just the aging infrastructure of the systems that we’re trying to resolve,” Terry Rhodes, executive director of the highway safety agency, said Tuesday. “I totally understand their frustration. We’re part of it, too. We’re working every day, constantly, on it.”

The state handles driver’s license transactions in Miami-Dade and Broward, the state’s two most populous counties.

The issues come months after the highway safety agency was forced to move database equipment when the agency left the Northwood Centre, an office building in Tallahassee so infested with bats that 10 pounds of guano were found in the ceiling above the desk of the secretary of the Department of Business and Professional Regulation.

In a letter to incoming House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, Rhodes cited numerous demands on the database, including the forced relocation of equipment, increased demands on it from users and the daily strain of absorbing more and more data.

Pasco County Tax Collector Mike Fasano opened four of his five offices last Saturday as he does every weekend. After Friday’s database crash, he said he had to send more than 1,000 people away last weekend.

Some people denied service were trying to renew driver’s licenses that expired, Fasano said, and were given so-called “send away” slips as proof that they tried to renew their licenses if they were stopped by police.

A frustrated Fasano said he considered telling customers to complain to Gov. Rick Scott’s office. The highway safety agency is a Cabinet-level department that reports to Scott and the three elected statewide Cabinet members.

The database overseen by the agency has two separate systems — one for driver’s licenses and one for vehicle registrations.

Tax collectors, local, state and federal law enforcement agencies, school districts and private vendors hired by car dealers to help car buyers with registration paperwork all rely on the data.

As crashes continue, tax collectors say they are growing more frustrated.

“It’s pretty darn serious, especially for people who drive for a living,” said Linda Myers, tax collector in rural Putnam County.

Myers said working people could lose money when they take time off from work to get their tags and licenses renewed, only to be told they can’t get their paperwork.

Tax collectors got a memo Tuesday from their association president, Larry Hart of Lee County, outlining the state’s plans to prevent future system crashes. Within the next three days, the state will provide a timeline for the fixes, the memo said.

Rhodes, the highway safety chief, said the state’s new hardware will hopefully be in place by next June, which should be a major improvement.

“We’re confident we’re going to get through this,” Rhodes said.

Contact Steve Bousquet at bousquet@tapabay.com or (850) 224-7263.