After spending two hours in line at the Motor Vehicle Administration in late January, David Romano angrily walked out when told he had the wrong forms -- and was in the wrong line.
His next stop: Fred's Motor Vehicle Title & Tag Service.
There, in a nondescript private shop in the 6000 block of Harford Road, Romano shelled out $32 for peace of mind and a new Maryland license plate.
"That whole MVA thing took four hours of my time. I waited in
line, and they gave me 15 pieces of paper and told me to fill [them] out. I said forget it. I came here," says Romano, among the thousands of MVA refugees who now use private title and tag services. "It's worth it to pay the fee."
For roughly the cost of an oil change, these services offer vehicle owners and auto dealers a painless alternative to the state's legendary bureaucracy, even as MVA moves to make itself more consumer-friendly.
Seventy-two licensed Maryland title and tag services handle vehicle registrations and countless other MVA-related tasks such title transfers, name and address changes and even dealer repossessions, agency records show.
That's up from 60 such firms in 1996, in part because of the public's demand for convenience, says Cheryl Lehmuth, the MVA's chief of business licenses and consumer services. Some title companies even make house calls, she adds.
That growth parallels MVA efforts to make things easier for motorists, with telephone and Internet registrations expected to start in the spring and booths in some malls where vehicle registrations will be as easy as an ATM deposit.
Yet some title and tag owners say those efforts are unlikely to slice into their business. The customers are too loyal, says Janice Hundt, owner of Norman's Tag and Title Service in eastern Baltimore County.
Even MVA officials concede the need for such services.
"These are our ambassadors out in the field," Lehmuth says. "As bad as the Internal Revenue Service can get, we're worse because you don't see us but every several years."
Most title and tag service representatives work out of a small room at MVA headquarters in Glen Burnie. They know the ins and outs of the building and are masters at completing the dizzying forms -- often on the first try.
"I'm very good at details," says Donald Bugg of Timonium. "I work on the problems, straighten them out."
Bugg, nicknamed "Bugsy" by his MVA pals, has been running title work to and from Glen Burnie for 28 years.
He rises daily at 5 a.m. for the 26-mile drive to headquarters,
where he's often first in line at a window that is open for dealers and title experts one half-hour before the public is allowed in.
In Southern Maryland, Michele Fuson left her job as a special education teacher last year to open Direct Express Auto Tag & Title in Prince Frederick.
"The nearest MVA is about one hour away, and we opened for convenience," Fuson says. "You can come here instead of having to take off a day of work and go to MVA and deal with the aggravations."
David Ellis, owner of Fred's in Baltimore, says his shop registers about 500 vehicles a month -- a service that saves taxpayers money.
"That's transactions that will not enter that building, so they need fewer counter employees -- it's a considerable savings," Ellis says.
At Fred's, Ellis has installed a computer that is linked to the
MVA's main files, allowing him to charge an additional fee to perform most transactions on the spot.
Normally, a tag renewal costs $70 -- but with the title and tag service the total comes to $85, including the $15 fee. Other fees at Fred's include $32 to register a vehicle and receive a plate, not including MVA's regular fees, says Jesse Giordana, part owner.
"We do just about everything you need done at MVA here," Giordana says. "We've grown to what we are today because the public needs this service."
At Norman's Tag and Title, the company touts its employees' familiarity with state motor vehicle laws.
"We eliminate the confusion that the customer feels from having to go from one department to another," says Hundt, Norman's owner, who makes two trips to Glen Burnie daily. "We service them from start to finish, no matter the transaction -- and they do not wait two hours. Our average service time is five minutes."
Hundt's family opened its tag and title service more than 25 years ago as part of a way to raise cash to help support another establishment, Norman's Liquor Store. But the tag and title service took off, Hundt says, and today "it holds its own."
In addition to representing individual vehicle owners, Norman's registers vehicles for dealerships, pulls licensing information for insurance companies and completes title transfers for movie production companies filming in the Baltimore area.
Much smaller is Allied Tag and Title, an agency on Eastern Avenue where owner James L. Jones has run title work for 35 years -- mostly for elderly neighbors -- at $20 a transaction.
"We have 150 customers per year," Jones says. "We have a lot of elderly people and a lot of business people who can't get there in the day -- we make it easy for them. When our paperwork goes down there for them, we have all the t's crossed and i's dotted."
Which is why the service is so popular today, says customer Dean Regula.
"I hate standing in line, and it's all taken care of in one day. It's worth it," says Regula, who recently hired Bugg to register a car. "A lot of times, the cost of gas and the time spent getting there equals the fee you pay."
Pub Date: 2/13/98