Michigan SOS offices set to increase hours to address pandemic backlog

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Secretary of State branches will increase office hours by an hour each day starting July 19 in an effort to clear a backlog of license, registration and title transactions that accumulated thanks to extensions granted during the pandemic.

The extra hour will mean branch offices will open at 8 a.m. on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays and close at 6 p.m. on Mondays and Thursdays, a departure from the offices' usual 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. schedule, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson said Wednesday. The change will remain in place through the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30. 

The department can finance the extra hours by delaying som projects and hires to pull together about $2.5 million internally to support the extra time, according to Benson's office. The number of additional people served would be greater if the Legislature had granted the Secretary of State office's request for an extra $5 million in federal COVID relief dollars, Benson said. 

Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson speaks at a virtual press conference on Monday, Feb. 1, 2021.

"I want to ensure all residents know that as pandemic restrictions continue to be lifted our office capacity will continue to increase," said Benson, a Detroit Democrat. "We’re still in the early days of post-pandemic operations, and we’ve got a strong plan here in place to provide an abundance of in-person opportunities for residents in the coming months.”

In May, Benson announced that the department would permanently abandon the former walk-in, "take-a-number" system and instead revert to an appointment-only system. But residents can still use "walk-ups," which consist of speaking to a greeter at the door who can allow the person in if an appointment is immediately available, tell them how long the wait is or help schedule the individual for another date or time. 

Republican lawmakers have been pushing for Benson to reinstate walk-in options. The most recent legislative proposal waiting for concurrence in the Senate requires Benson to provide "adequate in-person services," meaning the branch offices must provide same-day transactions without an appointment. 

Benson said Wednesday her plan "complies with the language of the legislation," but Rep. Steve Johnson disagreed.  

The Wayland Republican leads the House Oversight Committee that included the additional in-person provisions in the legislation. 

"She's dead wrong," Johsnon said. "The idea that you can go see a greeter and he can set up an appointment for you tomorrow does not fit what's required."

The lawmaker also questioned Benson's ability to come up with money to fund the extra office hours after asking for more funding from the Legislature. 

"Lo and behold she found a way,” Johnson said, arguing it was "political pressure" that forced the change.

The backlog of branch transactions was worsened when the GOP-led Legislature, against advice from the Secretary of State, gave a hard deadline of March 30 for the extensions granted during the pandemic, she said. The abrupt cutoff led to a deluge of individuals looking to renew licenses, registrations or titles at the same time. 

New legislation would create a rolling extension to prevent such a bottleneck. 

Benson also noted that recent legislative changes that took effect July 1 mean license or state ID photos only have to be renewed every 12 years, an extension from the prior eight-year photo renewal. 

The change means more residents can complete their renewals online or at a self-service station without entering a branch office for a new photo. 

Benson also plans in the next few months to launch mobile offices that can go directly to senior centers, places of worship or community centers to help those who may be unable to navigate online transactions.