Tired of lines at the MVA? Service will wait for you

THE INTREPID COMMUTER

November 30, 1992

David M. Ellis makes a living relieving pain and suffering.

He's not a doctor, not a nurse, not a clergyman.

He is a man who will thrust himself between you and a world of bureaucrats, paperwork, and red tape. For a fee, Mr. Ellis will deal with the Motor Vehicle Administration so that you don't have to.

"People hate going to the MVA because you get a sense that they think they're doing you a favor," he says. "It's a nightmare down there. It's not efficient. They're not polite.

"We're courteous. You come in here and you know you'll be talking to a sympathetic person."

Mr. Ellis is owner of Fred's Motor Vehicle Title & Tags Service in Hamilton, a small storefront that shares a block on Harford Road with such businesses as Vicky's Plaster Kraft and the Hamilton Animal Hospital.

On top of the regular MVA fees, Fred's charges customers $5 to have a driving record checked, $18 to process a title, $10 to renew a vehicle's registration.

He discovered long ago that for many of us, particularly people who are paid by the hour, it's actually cheaper to have somebody at Fred's fill out the forms and wait in the long lines at the MVA.

Mr. Ellis admits that the rationale for his company would also seem to imply that the MVA is a tortuous place to do business. Whether it is or it isn't, Fred's employees say they feel MVA management resents them.

Earlier this year, the MVA started a policy that requires title service employees to wait in line and perform only one transaction at a time. In the past, title services were given special treatment. Their forms could be dropped off in a back room and picked up later.

The new policy has meant that a title service worker has a more difficult time than the general public. He or she must stand in line for each title, even though any other customer is allowed to title up to three vehicles at a time.

"I guess they feel that I make money off their labor," says Mr. Ellis. "I don't look at it that way. We don't make a lot of money."

MVA Administrator W. Marshall Rickert says MVA employees are generally polite and hard-working, doing the best they can at a time when the agency has lost 200 jobs during the state's budget woes over the past year.

He denies that title services are resented by his agency and blames budget cutbacks for the decision to stop their special treatment.

The alternative, letting title agents clog up the counters, would not have been popular with other MVA customers, he says.

"I regard them [title agents] as an asset or a benefit to the MVA," Mr. Rickert says. "If a title service comes in, we know the work is complete. All too frequently a customer comes in and they discover they need more information. We're actually gaining efficiency."

Fred's is located in a one-story, wood-frame building in a working-class neighborhood.

The waiting room features vintage toy fire engines and photos of Mr. Ellis' father, Lewis, enjoying his hobby re-enacting battles from the Civil War.

The Ellis family has owned the place for 28 years (Fred was the name of a previous owner). Mr. Ellis and four employees serve the customers. In addition, one full-time and one part-time worker labors in an adjoining room processing titles for repossessed vehicles.

The furniture is well-worn and smells a bit of stale cigarettes. They considered renovating once -- until a contractor suggested the best course of action would be to invite a bulldozer in through the back door and to let him out the front.

Still, the office has inspired a loyal clientele with customers driving to northeast Baltimore from as far away as Randallstown, Pikesville and Timonium -- sometimes even passing an MVA office to get here.

In Maryland, 68 firms are licensed and bonded to act as title service companies. Most work exclusively for automotive dealers, and only a handful perform transactions for average Joes like Fred's does.

Title service companies are not permitted to do any work with driver's licenses, just titling and registration. Still, Mr. Ellis says he finds the title work rewarding.

"I enjoy helping people solve problems that nobody else could solve."

Keeping tags could be costly

Here's a tip from Fred's that Intrepid Commuter is happy to pass along: If you sell your car, don't cancel your insurance until after you've turned in your tags to the MVA.

Maryland law gives you a 24-hour grace period between when you cancel your insurance and turn in your tags, but it's unwise to stretch it. Wait 24 hours and 1 minute and the fine kicks in -- $150 for the first 30 days and $5 for every day after that.

The law is meant to discourage people from driving without insurance. But Mr. Rickert admits that someone who stuck a set of tags on the mantelpiece might be surprised to be fined. Think the MVA won't catch you? Think again.

Insurance companies are required to notify the agency if you canceled your policy within its first six months. The MVA also randomly checks the insurance of about 10 percent of the state's registered vehicles.

KEEP IN TOUCH

Write to the Intrepid Commuter, c/o The Baltimore Sun, P.O. Box 1377, Baltimore 21278. Please include your name and telephone number so we can reach you if we have any questions.

Or use your Touch-Tone phone to call Sundial, The Baltimore Sun's telephone information service, at 783-1800, and enter Ext. 4305. Call 268-7736 in Anne Arundel County.

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