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Good news unravels fast 

The costs and confusion caused by the closure of the downtown DMV

In a February 21 press release, Monroe County Clerk Maggie Brooks reacted to the state's decision to close its Department of Motor Vehicles office in Sibley Centre on East Main Street, effective April 1 --- making Rochester the only major city in the state without such a service downtown.

            "While any change can be challenging, the closure of the State DMV District Office is actually good news for taxpayers and the County Auto License Bureau," Brooks said in the statement.

            Why? As Brooks went on to explain, the county now stands to realize $286,000 in additional revenue generated by transactions made in the county-run branch offices. The county gets a cut of fees received at DMV offices it runs on behalf of the state, but no percentage of fees collected at the state-run office. The county-run offices include locations in Greece, Henrietta, and Irondequoit, as well as two mobile units that visit 10 suburban locations around the county.

            To drivers who live and work downtown, however, the closure of the Sibley Centre office was, to say the least, not good news. Their concerns were voiced in a February 25 article in the Democrat and Chronicle, and included complaints that the loss of the office creates a major inconvenience for those who will now have to find a way out to the suburbs to conduct their DMV business.

            Brooks --- who's considered the likely Republican pick to run for county executive this year --- held a press conference the next day at which she announced a plan to restore DMV services in the inner-city. The idea: Operate another mobile unit that would make stops at various locations in Rochester, including downtown, and pay for it with the new revenue stream. Buying the van and equipment will cost $65,000, and staffing it will cost $142,000 in salaries and benefits, according to figures released by the County Clerk's office.

            But in the days since she announced the "good news," Brooks also realized that the loss of the downtown office will increase the demand for DMV services at the suburban locations, whether there's mobile service in the city or not. In order to bolster staffing at the suburban locations, she also announced on February 26 that she intends to hire three additional cashiers, at a cost to the county of $130,000 annually in salaries and benefits, using that same revenue stream to pay for it.

            Now, let's do some math. According to Brooks' own figures, the one-time expense of buying the van and equipment ($65,000), plus the recurring expenses of staffing the van ($142,000) and hiring additional personnel to handle an increased demand for DMV service in the suburbs ($130,000) will cost the county $337,000 this year.

            Offset by the additional $286,000 in revenue from fees collected in suburban DMV offices, the county will have to come up with $51,000 in additional revenue to cope with the state's closure of the downtown DMV office.

            For every year thereafter, assuming fee revenue and employee salary and benefit costs remain comparable, the county will, in theory, be up $14,000 in the deal. But ongoing expenses necessary to keep the additional mobile service operating --- gas, insurance, and repairs for the van; upgrading equipment --- will likely whittle that hypothetical $14,000 down to insignificance.

So much for the "good news," but it gets worse.

            Brooks suggested that the mobile DMV service make stops at the Neighborhood Empowerment Team offices scattered throughout the city, but Mayor Bill Johnson --- the likely Democratic candidate for this year's exec race --- greeted that idea with skepticism. He told the D&C that using the NET offices would be "extremely difficult," because the offices are so small.

            Democratic County Legislator Calvin Lee echoed that concern in an interview with City. "Here you have a little, small NET office where they barely have enough parking for the employees," he says. "Where would you put this [mobile unit], and then how would you control the traffic in the area?"

            Lee also says it will be a hassle for city residents to have to figure out where the mobile van is on any given day, and then for those same people --- who, Lee notes, have "transportation issues" to begin with that necessitate a trip to the DMV --- to make arrangements to get there.

            The county has a phone information line (428-4132) that provides the locations of the mobile units, and that information is also on the county's web site ( "We also try to do a lot of publicity through the towns," says Deputy County Clerk Larry Staub, mentioning "town newsletters" that help spread the word to suburbanites.

            Brooks told City she hopes to work with city officials to do similar outreach in urban neighborhoods.

            Assuming suitable sites can be found for an urban mobile unit, and its day-to-day location can be effectively conveyed to city dwellers, many will still have to travel to one of the three stationary suburban locations to handle "enforcement transactions," such as the reinstatement of a license following a suspension. The mobile units only handle "routine motor vehicle service," Staub says, such as license and registration renewals, driver-permit testing, and plate transfers. Those tasks make up 95 percent of DMV transactions (the clerk's office estimates 600,000 DMV transactions take place in the county every year).

Lee's also concerned about the office closure's effect on Rochester's largely vacant downtown. "Economically, you're strapping the city again," he says. "We're struggling now trying to get people from all walks of life, all economic levels, to come to the city and start actually patronizing the city." The motor vehicle office was, he says, "one of the main draws" downtown.

            Brooks calls those economic ripple effects "a side issue," and adds, "I really have no control over that. I was not part of the decision [to close the DMV]."

            Brooks says "a large proportion" of downtown DMV customers "are people who live in the suburban areas and work downtown."

            Without that mix of suburban and urban customers, Alma Mason, owner of Alma's Mini Mart in Sibley Centre, sees a bleak future. The closing of the downtown DMV is "unfair to the public and unfair to my business," she says. "A lot of people who went [to the DMV] would come to my business."

            "My business is really hurting, because everyone is moving out," Mason continues. "All these other businesses were the reason I decided to locate here."

            In the five years since Mason opened her store, she's seen a steady departure of businesses --- including branch offices for Summit Federal Credit Union and HSBC --- from the Sibley Centre.

            Of the few remaining Sibley tenants, the largest is also poised to bolt: Monroe Community College's Damon City Campus, which occupies 200,000 square feet of the 1 million-square-foot Sibley Centre. MCC is planning to build an Advanced Technology Education Center downtown, and early discussions have involved locating the $62.8 million project on the corner of West Main Street and Plymouth Avenue --- six or seven blocks away from Sibley Centre. If that happens, the Damon Center would likely be moved to that new location.

            Cynthia Cooper, MCC's director of public affairs, says the tech-ed center's construction costs will be split evenly between the county and the state. But the college is still waiting for that funding to come through. The funding does not require the tech-ed center to be a new construction project, Cooper says.

            Heidi Zimmer-Meyer, president of Rochester Downtown Development Corporation, says locating the tech-ed center in the Sibley building is also a possibility, and could turn out to be the cheaper option. "I've put some options on the table," Zimmer-Meyer says, adding that "conversations [between the interested parties] will happen soon." But a decision, she says, may be years in the making.

            Meanwhile, the city is still owed $6.9 million in taxes, delinquent loan balances, and interest by Sibley Centre owners Rochwil Associates, a Wilmorite Inc. company.

In the short term, Lee wants to explore other options for DMV service in the county. For example, he suggests that a mobile unit could operate full-time in Greece or Henrietta --- where parking is plentiful --- replacing one of the stationary offices. The county could then take over the downtown DMV office, shifting costs from the suburban office to the Sibley Centre location.

            Asked if she's considering options other than an urban mobile unit, Brooks said, "We proposed the mobile service because it's the most cost-effective and doesn't require overhead."

            Taking over the state's downtown office would cost the county nearly $900,000 (a figure that factors in the use of all $286,000 in new fee revenue to help offset the cost). The governor's budget division expects that closing the office will save the state nearly the same amount: $824,000.

            Lee wants state officials to revisit their decision, and he wants the County Clerk's office to lobby the state to do so.

            Brooks, however, seems to think there's no need for that. "From a financial standpoint, I think it makes perfect sense for the state to make this decision," she says.

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