Race for county clerk focuses on customer service

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Both candidates for Monroe County clerk pledge to improve that department’s operations. 

“I have always believed in the power of local government, and together I know there is so much we can do to build up this community resource,” Democratic County Clerk Jamie Romeo said during a debate on WROC-TV.

County Legislator Karla Boyce asserted that under her, that department would better serve county residents.

“My commitment to you is to run a county clerk’s office that provides all residents with the highest possible level of customer service,” Romeo’s Republican opponent said during that debate.

Karla Boyce

Though they agree on the need to improve the way the clerk’s office functions, the candidates disagree as to how to go about it. Their most obvious differences involve the operation of the county’s Department of Motor Vehicle offices.

Boyce will have an uphill battle to victory in Monroe County, where Democratic voters greatly outnumber Republicans and Conservatives, but the climb could be worth it. Each of the past three Monroe County executives ascended to that position after stints as county clerk. 

The state Board of Elections database shows Romeo with a sizable campaign fundraising advantage. Her Friends of Jamie Romeo committee raised $58,070 from Jan. 1 to Oct. 1, while  Karla Boyce for County Clerk collected $17,903.

The race has been civil so far, but Boyce has pointedly blamed the incumbent for the department’s ills.

The Monroe county clerk oversees a multitude of essential services that directly or indirectly affect local residents’ lives. The clerk’s office administers four local New York State Department of Motor Vehicle offices, and issues driver’s and fishing licenses and pistol permits. Those on its staff also accept, file and make available State Supreme Court and county court documents, as well the documentation for local mortgages and real estate transactions. When immigrants are ready to become U.S. citizens, the county clerk swears them in. 

About 105 people work for the clerk’s office, which has a current budget of $8.1 million, all of which comes from the fees it charges from its services. 

“We typically give the county back several million dollars, typically around a little over $3 million,” Romeo says.

Revenue is down this year because of the limitations imposed upon the clerk’s office by the spread of the coronavirus, but Romeo expects her department to at least break even.

Public service

Both of the clerk candidates have spent many years in public service. Romeo represented the 136th state Assembly District when Gov. Andrew Cuomo picked her on Feb. 6 to serve out the term of former clerk Adam Bello, who had been elected Monroe County executive. An Irondequoit resident, Romeo was once on the staff of the the Monroe County Legislature’s Democratic wing, was chief of staff of the New York State Senate for a time, and previously chaired the Monroe County Democratic Committee. 

Boyce is in her second stint on the Monroe County Legislature. She has represented District 5 for roughly 19 years, chairs the Public Safety Committee and serves on the Recreation and Education Committee. In addition, Boyce spent four years on the Mendon Town Board. Due to term limits, she’ll have to leave the legislature in 2021. 

In addition to her legislative duties, Boyce works as the teenage services act coordinator for the nonprofit Coordinated Care Services Inc. At the same time, she’s studying toward a graduate degree in mental health counseling. The Honeoye Falls resident once worked in her family’s retail business and owned a retail store herself. 

At the wheel

November’s winner will end up running a department that is very different from the one that existed pre-coronavirus. 

“The pandemic has forced immense changes on the clerk’s office, starting with the middle of March, when most of our operations were required to shut down,” Romeo says.

Employees of the clerk’s office have continued working onsite throughout the pandemic but were unable to see residents in person for four months. 

Jamie Romeo

“When we were not permitted to accept people into a DMV physically for months, there were a number of backlogs that occurred, mostly with licensure transactions, like applying for driver’s licenses (or) renewing with an eye exam,” Romeo says.

Vehicle owners couldn’t drop off the license plates of the cars, trucks or trailers they had taken off the road, putting them afoul of state laws.

“People were going to start being fined and penalized because they couldn’t get access to a service,” Romeo says.

The resulting “traffic debt”—as Romeo terms it—can hit low-income county residents particularly hard.

“Rochester, New York, is the second most populated area outside of New York City that has individuals in poverty getting stuck in traffic debt,” Romeo says. “They lose their licenses because they can’t afford to pay them.”

Lack of a driver’s license could snowball, leaving individuals unable to get to work or access health care.

Romeo and her staff took a number of steps to deal with pandemic-induced problems. The mobile DMV trucks that had been making the rounds at town halls around the county were parked, and those operating them reassigned.

“Mobile DMVs have actually been reallocated into the other components of the auto license bureau, so that we can continue to process mail-in and remote transactions as well as auto dealership work,” Romeo said during the recent on-air debate.

Residents who want to obtain or renew driver’s licenses, vehicle registrations and other important documents can download the needed forms from the DMV’s website. Mailed-in forms can be turned around within three weeks. 

As the threat of COVID-19 transmission receded, DMV offices began allowing in-person visits to their premises by appointment. Residents can sign up online. In August, the appointment system had booked 11,000 appointments, Romeo says. Wait times for in-person visits average about one month, though the appointment system schedules them as much as 90 days out. 

DMV’s appointment system is not without its problems. There’s a lot of demand, and 31 percent of those who sign up turn out to be no-shows.

“We are finding it difficult to keep availabilities open in a more timely fashion,” Romeo says. 

Residents also can surrender vehicle plates by putting them in the drop boxes outside three of the county’s four DMV offices. In keeping with her desire to help drivers avoid unnecessary problems, Romeo supports the Driver’s License Suspension Reform Act, which limits the grounds under which the state can suspend a driver’s license due to nonpayment of fines, fees and mandatory surcharges. Both houses of the state legislature passed the act, which now awaits Cuomo’s signature.

During the recent debate, Boyce said constituents have complained to her about the way the county is running its DMV operations.

“All the feedback I’ve gotten from my legislative office and reading on social media, people are not happy with how things are being taken care of at the county clerk’s office these days,” she said. “The buck stops with you, Miss Romeo.” 

Though she admits that the pandemic has caused problems for the clerk’s office, Boyce asserts it has also presented an opportunity “to think a little bit differently” about the way the office operates. To do that, she’d depend upon some of the lessons she learned in retail.

“I know hard work. I know about good customer service,” she says.

Boyce would offer residents who are waiting for DMV appointments a cell phone app that would notify them when an opening becomes available due to a no-show. 

“You would ask to be put on a waiting list, and then if that time popped up that somebody didn’t show, then you would be the next available person,” Boyce says.

Asked how residents might drive to appointments that have unexpectedly come open before they end, Boyce suggested that they might be willing to wait near DMV offices in their cars and hope for openings.

“That seems to me to be something that residents I’ve talked to said, ‘Yeah, that would be amenable,’” she says.

In addition, Boyce would put the mobile DMVs back on the road.

“We need to work with our community leaders, possibly putting satellite mobile DMVs into recreation centers, settlement houses,” she said. “The community and the city residents deserve the best that they can have.”

Finally, Boyce says as clerk she would use the knowledge she’s gained as a student and through her job.

“I want to bring great professional development for the folks that work at the Department of Motor Vehicles and the other agencies of the clerk’s office,” she says.

Romeo says she’d help her employees by advocating for higher pay. 

“We have a class of workers that work both in our downtown filing office and in our DMVs that don’t make minimum wage,” she said at the recent debate. “One of the things I’m committed to is making sure that we are adequately supporting and paying people, not just with training, but by paying and respecting them.”

Boyce and Romeo hold dissimilar views of the Driver’s License Access and Privacy Act, which took effect last December. Known as the “Green Light law,” the act allows New Yorkers 16-years-old and older to apply for standard, noncommercial, not-for-federal-identification purposes driver’s licenses or permits regardless of their legal status or citizenship. Applicants need not have Social Security numbers in order to be eligible. 

Both candidates say they’ll obey the new law, but Boyce considers the measure unfair to legal U.S. residents, who must tender their Social Security numbers when applying for licenses or permits.

“If there’s documents that need to be produced for regular, legal citizens, then those illegal immigrants should have to give the same documents,” she says.

Romeo voted for the Green Light law while in the Assembly, and believes it’s unfair to deny some of the people who are undocumented the right to apply for licenses or permits, especially the workers who are essential to local agriculture.

“It is not fair and appropriate for our economies to be dependent upon a workforce if we don’t even allow them to enter the same process to get a driver’s license,” she says.

Steve Ammerman, public affairs manager for the New York Farm Bureau, says that most of the area’s agricultural workers probably wouldn’t be affected if the new county clerk refused to obey the new law.

“A farmer doesn’t knowingly hire undocumented workers,” Ammerman says. “Most seasonal farms hire through the H2A federal ag worker guest program, which provides legal visas to foreign workers.”

Whoever occupies the Monroe County clerk’s office next year, its operations will be different.

Mike Costanza is a Rochester Beacon contributing writer.

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