Nome DMV temporarily suspended availability of road tests
By Megan Gannon
Landon Wieler of Nome turned 16 in June. He hoped that milestone birthday would come with an American rite of passage: getting a driver’s license. He had his lerner’s permit for a year and had been putting in time behind the wheel with instruction from his family. But when he attempted to schedule a road test through the Division of Motor Vehicles vendor in Nome, he learned that no such tests were available.
His mother, Cindy Wieler, was frustrated that they only discovered the lack of tests when they showed up for part two of a two-part appointment at the privately run DMV office. Wieler looked for local alternatives for her son in Nome but turned up empty. This week they flew to Kotzebue, where they were able to book a driver’s test at the state-run DMV three weeks out.
Though traveling means her son will miss three days of work, Wieler said she was fortunate to have family who can host them in Kotzebue and to have enough miles to buy their plane tickets. But she finds the lack of road tests “impractical” for a hub as big as Nome, which provides services for many outlying villages.
“It affects anyone in our area wanting to get a license,” Wieler said. She worried about possible lost employment opportunities for people who need a driver’s license to work. “It's not very practical to go ahead and pay for airfare, hotel, a car rental.”
Rolland Trowbridge, owner of Trinity Sails and Repair, the auto repair shop that has served as a private vendor offering DMV services for more than five years, said road tests should resume shortly, as soon as next week.
“All I can say is the town needs to have patience,” Trowbridge said. “There has been a little bit of a delay, but it is not permanent.”
He said that the lack of road tests was due to a paperwork issue he has had with the state since about May. He said the company he was using to buy insurance for his road tests recently pulled out of Alaska. TSR had to find a new insurer and refile paperwork with the state. He said that the person handling his case with the state changed positions and the process of getting recertified for road tests has taken longer than expected.
In a statement to The Nome Nugget, Jeffrey Schmitz, Alaska’s DMV director, did not get into the specific details of the paperwork issue.
“In order to offer road skills testing, the DMV must obtain specific documents to renew both the facility and road skills examiner licenses,” Schmitz said. “DMV is working with Trinity Sails on a few outstanding items which, once received, will allow Trinity Sails to resume offering non-commercial road skills testing.”
Trowbridge said he did not set out to become the sole DMV services provider in Nome. He said he started offering those services as part of his auto business because the DMV in Nome was sometimes taking six to eight months to complete their paperwork related to buying and selling vehicles.
“If people wanted to go through us, we charged $30 per transaction to do it, and it was so, so bad here that people were paying the extra $30 to not have to wait for the local DMV,” Trowbridge said.
TSR became the commissioned agent in May 2019.
Schmitz confirmed that there are other cities in Alaska that rely on commissioned agents instead of state-run offices to perform DMV services, including Anderson, Utqiagvik, Cordova, Craig, Dillingham, Glennallen, King Salmon, Petersburg, Seward, Talkeetna, Unalaska, Wrangell and Yakutat. Several of those offices, however, are operated by local public entities, such as police departments and municipal governments. Generally, a commissioned agent is supposed to be open a minimum of 20 hours each week, three days per week, and a minimum of two hours each day, Schmitz said. “During those business hours the [commissioned agent] must offer the same services that one would receive from a state-run DMV, such as issuing driver licenses and identification cards, processing motor vehicle titles, boat, snow machine, ATV and other motor vehicle transactions as well as conducting road skills testing,” Schmitz said.
Trowbridge said operating the DMV is not a moneymaker for him and he would gladly turn over the contract to the City or Kawerak or any other organization who wanted to take up the job. Still, he expressed pride in keeping an employee who has served as Nome’s DMV agent for almost three years now. Trowbridge said the previous DMV office had a high turnover rate during its last decade of operations in Nome.
Ken Truitt, a spokesperson for Alaska’s Department of Administration, confirmed that staffing is a chronic issue for the DMV. Truitt said that this time last year, the DMV was running with a staff vacancy rate of about 22 percent. “Once they do have people, the turnaround rate is fairly high,” Truitt said. Because DMV employees earn some of the lowest pay rates among public employees in Alaska, Truitt describes the division as an entryway for better government jobs.