ONLINE SERVICES: Opinions differ on Rapid Renewal and MOSES
(from Maine Townsman, January 2001)
by Douglas Rooks, Freelance Writer

The conversion of state functions to include online access might seem straightforward, but - as two state agencies currently involved in such efforts can attest - it's anything but.

The Secretary of State's office is now piloting its Rapid Renewal program for vehicle registrations with 10 towns and cities, and the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife is gearing up to convert most hunting and fishing licenses to electronic form. The latter effort has been dubbed MOSES, which stands for Maine Online Sportsman's Electronic System.

Since town clerks and tax collectors are intimately involved with both programs, the startups have prompted intense interest and strong opinions.

Rapid Renewal is proceeding relatively smoothly. Town offices and the state have worked closely together for years on registrations, based on the requirement that owners pay local excise taxes before registering vehicles. The state allows towns to process renewals - a trip to a motor vehicle office is often not necessary - and includes an agent fee of up to $3 for residents and $5 for non-residents. While seemingly small, the fees are an important source of revenue for some towns, paying the salary of some office workers.

This aspect of Rapid Renewal has roused concern. If a registration that was previously renewed at a town office is instead done online, the agent fee goes to InforMe - the state's data base and central computer network - and not the town. The second point of discomfort is that renewals can now be made only with credit cards, meaning that merchant's fees skim off more than 2 percent of the transaction.

"That's a concern for the towns, but it's also a concern for us," said Rebecca Wyke, deputy secretary of state. "We have to pay the fees, too, and that comes out of our budget."

The solution is an electronic check system that the state hopes will be available as early as February. The vendor likely to supply the e-checks estimates that each transaction - including an unlimited number of renewals - will cost 12-18 cents, rather than the 2 percent fee that can represent a significant sum.

The e-checks, as an alternative to credit cards, may also make the program more attractive to certain towns. Gilberte Mayo, tax collector/treasurer in Lincoln, said she was looking forward to being one of the pilot towns for the Rapid Renewal, but the town council chairman and town manager decided against it. "I'm glad they did," she said. "It means that other towns will have to contend with the heartaches and headaches before we have to." The council chairman objected that credit card payments shouldn't be offered for such basic services as vehicle registrations. The electronic check version would overcome that concern and make it more likely that Lincoln will participate.

Unlike the IF&W program, Rapid Renewal is completely optional for municipal offices, though Secretary of State Dan Gwadosky said he expects that many, if not most, towns will eventually participate. And they will also be able to decide whether to allow credit card transaction, or use only e-checks. Gwadosky also believes that consultation with municipalities has helped; meetings to design the program date back more than two years.

Hermon Town Manager Steve Tuckerman is a local official who's enthusiastic about Rapid Renewal. He sees it as a logical extension of the town's Internet program, which offers free access to all residents, courtesy of the school department's state-of-the-art system. Hermon is one of the 10 pilot towns, and Tuckerman said he didn't hesitate before signing up. "We've made a commitment that the more services we can offer online, the better we'll be serving the public," he says.

While he concedes that the town will have to do without the agent fee - Hermon charges $2 - he's not sure that's a problem. "When you consider the staff time involved, does it really pay?" When a vehicle owner shows up without the required paperwork, employees direct them to a town computer terminal so they can use the state data base to complete the transaction.

In Winslow, Rapid Renewal - and all similar electronic programs - faces a sterner test from Town Manager Ed Gagnon. "These programs all sound great, but nobody wants to say that they cost money and take away revenue from the towns," he said. "That's always been the bugaboo. Who makes up the difference? It has to be through higher taxes." Others, he said, are effectively subsidizing those who use credit cards. "Convenience is fine, but who pays for that convenience?"

Familiarity with computers and the Internet appears critical to the reception of Rapid Renewal and similar programs. An estimated 40 percent of town offices are still not connected, though the number is shrinking.

How much revenue will be diverted is, for now, a matter of conjecture. Steve Tuckerman said a similar program in Indiana captures only 2 percent of renewals after three years in operation. In Hermon, by contrast, the pilot program has logged 4.6 percent of transactions. Revenue losses don't particularly concern him. "Say it was eventually 10 percent. It still doesn't amount to much, when you consider the enhanced customer service. There's no waiting in line."

In a larger town like Brunswick, the pilot program has also caught on. Tapping away at his computer, Finance Director John Eldridge quickly reported that 60 vehicles registered online in December. While customer reaction has been good, the pilot program has shown there are still bugs to be worked out, he said.

When the computer did a dummy run of a registration taken out by First Lady Mary Herman, who lives in Brunswick, it showed how a problem might crop up. "She apparently renewed the registration in Brunswick, but later took out a vanity plate at a motor vehicle office," Eldridge said. If Herman tried to renew online, first paying the excise tax to Brunswick, she might not be able to. "At this point we're only getting a month of data from Motor Vehicles," he said. It may be necessary to get data three months in advance to make the program effective. "Naturally, we'll want to be sure that's straightened out."

The quibbles about Rapid Renewal contrast with blunter concerns about MOSES. Several town clerks said they felt the program was being dictated to them. And although they're mollified by changes IF&W has agreed to, there's still unease about what MOSES will mean for town offices.

Unlike vehicle registrations, which, like marriage, birth and death records are a legal fact of life, towns are not required to offer hunting and fishing licenses, though virtually all of them do.

Town offices amount to about half of the 1,000 agents, according to Rick Record, director of administration for IF&W. He said the private license agents - Rite Aid, L.L. Bean, the Kittery Trading Post among them - have had few problems with MOSES. And he said, in response to municipal concerns, that "we're trying to make sure this is something everyone can live with." Record and other IF&W staff held several day-long meetings in early January to sort out issues and take them back to MCI WorldCom, the contractor installing the new system.

IF&W does face a taller order than Motor Vehicles. Rapid Renewal is an optional addition to a system that will continue pretty much intact. MOSES is an attempt to replace a 25-year-old, mainframe computer system that produces lots of paperwork and sometimes vexing reporting requirements. (Hunters will also be able to renew online through the same InforMe program used for Rapid Renewal.) 

Yet some towns were turned off by the initial approach. The first letters, which went out last October, "made it sound like we would lose revenue, and that this was a mandate," said Sherry Frith, Augusta city clerk, who has met with IF&W officials. The first concern, taken seriously enough to prompt a resolution at the December town clerk's convention, was that IF&W would take away part of the $2 agent fee allotted to towns. "We had just fought to get that fee increased by the Legislature (it had previously been $1)," Frith said, "and now we thought we were going to lose it."

Linda Cohen, South Portland city clerk, said a letter from Vesta Billing, IF&W license and registration director, made it sound as if multiple transactions would only carry one $2 fee, rather than one for each license.

Rick Record said neither point was what IF&W had in mind. He said there was never any plan to reduce the agent fee, and that the department has agreed that each license will count as a separate transaction.

Another point of contention was the department's idea that it would "sweep" municipal checkbooks once a month to collect fees. "My finance director says that's not going to happen," Cohen said.

And Record says it won't. Towns will have four options - the electronic "sweep" by IF&W; an electronic "push" by the town to the state; a good old-fashioned check; or a yet-to-be-devised electronic check.

Not entirely convinced, Cohen said "I haven't seen that in writing yet." Record says it will be in writing - part of new contracts IF&W is drawing up.

The mandatory aspect of the program was perhaps the largest sticking point. Some small towns have offices open only a few hours a week, and sell only a handful of licenses, Record said. IF&W has now agreed that only agents handling 500 or more licenses will be required to participate. That's still a point of concern in Lincoln, where Gilberte Mayo says the town handles more than 500 licenses, but doesn't have the electronic setup to handle them.

"We have tried to make this as easy as possible," Record said, pointing out that a standard PC and Internet connection are all that's needed. But he said the 500 threshold will be enforced "unless there's a compelling business reason" not to. The compromise will mean that only 25 percent of agents have to participate - though all are welcome to - covering more than 75 percent of renewals.

Record, and the city clerks, point out that there are significant advantages to MOSES. It will eliminate the need to maintain, and secure, paper inventory, and also do away with monthly reports - something Cohen appreciates. "You could be off 50 cents, but you have to find that, no matter how long it takes," she said.

And municipalities will be able to offer a full range of licenses and applications for the moose hunt lottery; most now offer only resident licenses. "That will help," Sherry Frith said. "We don't like it when a non-resident applies and we have to send them down the road to Rite Aid." In the end, towns and cities may come out ahead, Record said.

Despite the bugs and startup problems, none of the participants doubt the need for electronic programs. Yet MOSES would have gone more smoothly, Frith said, if there'd been more consultation. "I said we'd be happy to pilot the program, but I never heard back," she said. Like most clerks, she expected the program to go online this spring without any testing except at IF&W.

In fact, Rick Record said, in-house testing will take place this summer and there will be pilot efforts at municipal offices by fall. There will be no actual licensing under MOSES until 2002.

There will be more issues for clerks to resolve, too. Frith said she doesn't know how the MOSES transactions will transfer to the city's accounting system; the city may need to build a software "bridge." Linda Cohen agrees that's a challenge, but said, "If we can't work it out, and we have to maintain four separate drawers, that's the way it'll be done. We're here to serve the public. That's our bottom line."

Even the electronic skeptics, like Winslow's Ed Gagnon, see online services coming, whether towns really like them or not: "It's just like a freight train coming through."