20 months later most DVS offices still closed from pandemic

Just about everyone would consider registering a vehicle and obtaining a driver’s license from the Department of Vehicle Services an essential service. That explains why a few weeks after shutting down DVS offices statewide in March 2020, the agency managed to reopen key regional facilities statewide. In the meantime, DVS has done little except to set a new standard of unresponsiveness to its “customers” that only burnishes its already tattered public image.

But now Forum News says the befuddled agency has agreed to throw a bone to frustrated taxpayers. Officials have committed to restarting seven locations this month in what a DVS news release delicately described as a “phased approach.”

The move comes as the state aims to reopen dozens of stations around the state following closures due to COVID-19. The department in March of 2020 shrunk the number of open stations around the state to 15 when Gov. Tim Walz issued a stay-at-home order to limit the spread of COVID-19.

Since then, DVS officials have slowly reopened exam stations but have lagged due to staffing issues and financial constraints. The Legislature earlier this year approved legislation putting $5 million toward the effort to reopen shuttered stations and requiring DVS to resume service at all 93 sites.

Yet the vast majority of DVS facilities scattered throughout Minnesota remain shuttered to this day, 20 months and counting after closing for the pandemic. In recent weeks, Department of Public Safety Director John Harrington has faced intensifying pressure from lawmakers demanding the reopening of every office on behalf of the hundreds of thousands of residents without any option but to drive far out of their way for a license or other services provided by the agency.

Republican lawmakers on Monday said the state needed to speed up the reopening process and get more exam stations back in service.

“Reopening these stations should have never taken this long. Government has to stay open to provide essential services, including licensing drivers,” state Sen. Mark Johnson, R-East Grand Forks, said. “Minnesotans in all areas of the state deserve access to essential driver’s license services so they can have the means to go about their daily lives.”

The 2021 state legislature provided $5 million to jumpstart the process of getting the vital centers back in business ASAP. The latest word from DVS claims the agency expects to get up to speed at all locations by the end of January. But as usual, there’s no guarantee.

Based on a phased approach for reopening, and to ensure that needs for leases and staffing are adequate, 43 DPS-DVS exam stations will be open by the end of the year. The remaining 50 exam stations will be opened by Jan. 31, 2022. DPS-DVS will open stations earlier if a lease and appropriate staffing are in place.

Still, DVS recently demonstrated how expeditiously state government can move when motivated. The agency announced a new $20 fee on those who fail to appear for a coveted spot on the waiting list for a driver’s test, a crunch created by the DVS shutting down for the last year and a half.