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Computer glitch eats gobs of tag renewal notices

Officials say the law requires motorists to pay a delinquent fee even if they don't receive a notice.

By RICHARD DANIELSON

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 22, 2000


TAMPA -- Hundreds of thousands of motorists across Florida might not have received tag renewal notices because the wrong addresses were keyed into a new computer at the state Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, officials said Tuesday.

The problem mainly affects motorists who lease cars or who moved last year, although state officials say there are others who have not received renewal notices but do not fall into either of those categories. The exact number was not available, but officials acknowledged the problems could affect as many as 1.1-million of the 13-million vehicles registered in Florida.

"Based on the numbers we've looked at, it's probably less than 9 percent" of the 13-million vehicles, said Janet Dennis, a spokeswoman for the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.

The problem started when a new state computer was brought online last October and merged several huge databases. It is expected to take until this October to correct everything, but Dennis said officials think the worst has passed.

In Hillsborough County, Tax Collector Doug Belden mails about 50,000 renewal notices a month based on information provided by the state. But because of the computer glitch, as many as 6,000 to 8,000 Hillsborough residents a month might not receive a notice.

As a result, state and county officials say motorists should check their car registrations. Most are up for renewal on the owner's birthday, but registrations for some leased vehicles are renewed at different times of the year.

"We all know our birth dates, so that in itself is a clue," Pinellas County Tax Collector W. Fred Petty said. "If you've got a birthday coming up and you haven't received a registration renewal notice in the mail, by all means, go through the process that you normally go through to renew your registration."

Belden said that, by law, his office must charge delinquent fees of $5 to $10, depending on the weight of a vehicle, when motorists fail to renew a tag on time. That's true even if the owners never received a renewal notice from the state.

But because of the widespread nature of the problem, Belden said, he has asked state officials to extend the delinquency period by 30 days through October, even if it requires a change to state law.

Carl Ford, the assistant director of the state Division of Motor Vehicles, said officials are considering that idea but nothing has been decided.

Belden said he also will contact local law enforcement agencies to explore the possibility of waiting an extra month before ticketing cars with expired tags, at least through October.

"I don't think it's fair that taxpayers have to pay a fine or delinquency fee based on a mistake that resulted from a conversion of the state system," Belden said.

Dennis said the fine for driving with a tag that has been expired for less than six months is $30, but that can be reduced to $5 if the motorist gets the tag registration renewed and takes proof of that, along with the ticket, to the clerk of court's office.

Dennis said the problems occurred during a massive overhaul of the state's driver license and motor vehicle computer systems, which was done to bring them up to date, improve efficiency and make records year 2000-compliant.

Officials expect the problem will prevent 85,000 renewal notices from going out on leased vehicles statewide next month, although that number is expected to drop to 13,000 or 14,000 in May.

Ford said motorists who lease vehicles where the registration belongs to the leasing company are more likely not to receive a renewal notice.

"If you lease a vehicle and the registration is actually in your name, then you probably will not be affected," he said.

- Richard Danielson can be reached at (813) 226-3383 or danielson@sptimes.com.

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