Benson defends appointment-only system, asks for lawmakers' cooperation

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Lansing — Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson defended her decision to move Michigan's 131 branch offices to an appointment-only system with no walk-ins but asked the Legislature to help smooth the transition by moving more services online or by mail. 

The Detroit Democrat said Thursday that her office had done all it could under current law and budget constraints to move more services online and streamline services at branch offices. 

"We're at this precipice where there is a path forward but only if we work together," Benson told the press Thursday prior to testifying before the House Oversight Committee. 

Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, D-Detroit, testifies before the Michigan House Oversight Committee Thursday, May 27, 2021, about her decision to switch branch offices to an appointment-only system.

Benson's announcement earlier this month that the state would end walk-in appointments for good after suspending them throughout the COVID-19 pandemic was criticized by some lawmakers because of the waits residents were experiencing to make an appointment. 

"We’ve received hundreds and hundreds of comments just kind of detailing the horrors that they’ve had dealing with this," said House Oversight Chairman Steve Johnson, R-Wayland, of the appointment system. "I think the average wait time we could see there was three months.”

Benson has touted the appointment-only system used during the pandemic, arguing that most business can be done online and, after making an appointment, residents can get in and out of the office in 20 minutes. 

In recent weeks, the secretary increased the department's call center to help those wishing to schedule appointments.

Still, getting an appointment recently has proved a challenge, with some individuals having to schedule appointments two to three months in advance. Amid a looming backlog of renewals pushed off during the pandemic, some cars are driving plate-less and some drivers are requesting leniency for expired licenses.

Benson has encouraged people to use next-day appointments instead of the advance appointment system for a speedier appointment. Residents must log in at 8 a.m. and noon to get an appointment for the following day on a first-come, first-serve basis. The process can sometimes take a few days, the secretary said.

"That's problematic for people who have a normal 8-5 job," Johnson said. "They don't necessarily know for sure that they can get the next morning off."

Benson said Thursday an old tool to reserve a time slot in line never worked effectively and often miscalculated how long a task would take, meaning people waiting for their turn would have their appointment pushed further and further back. 

Timely service for walk-in appointments also has been complicated by cuts to budgets, branch offices and staff. 

An appointment system, by comparison, is much more efficient, Benson said. Or, at least, it will be when a few hurdles are cleared, she said.

"I just want to keep moving forward," Benson said. "I don't want to go back to a system that's not working."

Between 2018 and 2020, Benson said, the percentage of secretary of state business conducted in the office decreased from 74% to 40%.

But the delays currently experienced by residents when scheduling appointments have been exacerbated by a confluence of pandemic-era renewal extensions expiring at the same time offices are still having to shut down periodically due to a COVID-19 exposure, she said.

Earlier this month, two of the state's larger branch offices in Livonia and Troy had to shut down because of COVID-19 exposure, Benson said.

As COVID-19's hold on the state continues to loosen and a backlog of renewals are cleared, the wait should decrease, Benson said. 

Still, the Legislature could help to speed that recovery by passing laws that would allow more services to occur online, allowing pop-up or mini offices in shopping centers and allowing driving tests to occur online, she said. 

Benson also asked for increased funding and proposed, among other options, to raise lookup fees for certain driving records from $11 to $15 to raise an estimated $7.9 million for expanded staffing and services.

With those improvements, Benson said, the department will be the "closest we've ever been since the '80s to have a supply and demand match."

Lawmakers were amenable to some changes in the way the department does business, but they expressed concerns about the timing of the changes amid pent-up demand and continued recovery from the pandemic. Benson argued the delays would be there even with walk-in appointments.

"We're not opposed to trying different things," Johnson said. "I like some of your ideas, they're creative. Let's have that discussion. Let's try that out. ... But in the meantime ... why not have that walk-in option?"