Hours-long waits at the state driver's license office located in the Morgan County Courthouse could be shortened if the County Commission would allow the office to be open longer, according to state Sen. Arthur Orr, but Commission Chairman Ray Long said the state has provided no money to cover the expense of expanded hours.
Waiting in line Monday in 90-degree heat, Hartselle resident Mackie Jacobs said the delays are inexcusable.
“It’s hot and it’s ridiculous and frustrating,” said Jacobs, who was waiting to reinstate his license. “I was hoping to get in and get out. I was supposed to go to work today. This is horrible.”
Jacobs, a construction worker, said he missed a day of work that cost him about $100. He waited from 9:30 a.m. until 1 p.m. before being called to the lobby of the driver's license office.
While standard driver's license renewals can be handled online or at the county license commissioner's office on the second floor of the courthouse, driver's license exams and road tests, STAR IDs, learner's permits, commercial driver's licenses, non-driving IDs and several other driver's license-related services can only be processed at the state driver's license office, located on the first floor of the courthouse.
Bentley Vaughn, a state driver's license examiner, said people now get in line as early as 5:30 a.m. in hopes of being served quickly when the courthouse and the state office inside open at 8.
COVID-19 precautions have contributed significantly to the long lines, as has an increase in STAR ID applications. A STAR ID or passport will be required to board a commercial airliner on domestic flights and to enter certain federal facilities beginning in October 2021.
Orr, R-Decatur, said the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency has opened additional offices across the state, including one in Madison at 100 Plaza Blvd. on Tuesday.
Orr said ALEA is opening an hour early and on Saturdays in some counties, but Morgan has not agreed to open on Saturdays.
Long said he would like to open the courthouse on Saturdays, but the money isn’t available.
“We need security for the courthouse,” he said. “We don’t have the manpower to do it and would have to pay the county jailers who work courthouse security overtime. We have to operate within a budget, and (neither) Sen. Orr nor the state has ever offered us any money for the security. If we can hire about three more jailers we could do it. We simply don't have the money or manpower."
In an effort to maintain social distancing, the ALEA driver's license examining office at the courthouse has reduced the number of seats in its lobby to seven and there is no standing allowed in the hallway. Once those seats are filled, others give their phone numbers to a state driver's license examiner and wait outside or in their vehicles until they are called to enter the office lobby where the wait is about another 30 minutes.
“We do take appointments but for those who walk up, we use the so-called playground rules where it is first come, first served,” said Vaughn. Vaughn said patrons are credited “for time served.”
“If they aren’t seen on the day they come, they will go ahead of the group once they arrive the next day,” he said. Vaughn sees about 25 a day and the five examiners collectively process between 100 and 130 patrons daily, he said.
“We quit taking people in the office by 3:15 to 3:30 each day,” he said.
Long said the state office works efficiently, but only so many people can be handled during the hours available.
"I think the ALEA staff does a great job processing the licenses here. People come in from other counties to Morgan County to get their license, but with COVID our building opens at 8 a.m. Monday through Friday and closes at 4:30. We have to be able to ensure social distancing," he said.
Long said security officers arrive at the courthouse at 7:30 to ensure everything is in working order before the public is allowed in at 8 a.m. He said that a few months before the pandemic, the state driver's license office was opening at 7:30 a.m., “but that all changed when the pandemic came in.”
Long said the logjam is a statewide issue, in part created by the STAR ID program deadline, which recently was extended until Oct. 1, 2021.
Long said residents simply needing to renew a driver's license can do so by visiting the license commissioner's office on the second floor of the courthouse. "We usually don't have much of a wait for that service," he said. He said satellite offices in Hartselle and the District 4 shop in Cotaco can renew licenses, too.
Trinh Pham of Madison waited 3½ hours Monday before she was called into the state office's lobby.
Pham drove to Decatur from Madison, she said, because the line at the Madison County Courthouse in Huntsville was “around the building.”
“I’m a little bit frustrated and hungry,” said Pham, 46, who works as a manicurist in Huntsville. “I think we’re all ready for life to be back to normal.”
About 12:30 p.m. Monday, Peter Duchock, of Decatur, watched his 16-year-old daughter Victoria get her chance behind the wheel under Vaughn’s watchful eyes.
“We waited about 4½ hours and I took a vacation day from work for this but that’s OK,” said her father. “We moved from Birmingham, and it would have been a long wait there, too. We just have to take everything in stride. We all have to deal with it.”
Seventeen-year-old Reyes Martinez of Athens said he missed a day at school when he arrived at the Morgan Courthouse at 8 a.m. Friday to take his driving test for his first license. Six hours later, at 2 p.m., his name was called but it was raining “and they told me to come back Monday.” At about 12:30 p.m. Monday, he showed the security officer monitoring the line his paperwork and he was sent straight to the office. He said the Limestone County Courthouse doesn’t offer driving tests.
“I’m ready to get my license,” Martinez said. “But it’s nobody’s fault. COVID-19 has changed society.”
Vaughn urged patrons needing his office’s services to bring proof of insurance, car tag receipt, two forms of identification and if taking their driving test, the accompanying drivers must have their driver's licenses, too.
“And most of all, be prepared to wait. Get here early if you can,” he said.