Thomas Gaither, a 54-year-old Baltimore truck driver, was caught in the cogs of the state Motor Vehicle Administration's bureaucratic gears.
Standing with arms folded near the counter of the MVA's Mondawmin office, Mr. Gaither said the Baltimore County police were pressing him to pay several unpaid 1988 parking tickets. While he owns a Chevy truck with the tag number listed on the tickets, he said didn't get those tags from the MVA until 1990.
So he took time off from work, went to Mondawmin and asked for a letter certifying that the tickets predated his tags. Employees listened, conferred, decided to write a letter, then disappeared into a side room. The process, he said, had taken 2 1/2 hours, and Mr. Gaither was steamed.
"If it takes the people this long to type up a letter, it's clear they need to get somebody else to do their typing for them," he grumbled. His letter did not appear for another 20 minutes.
In response to motorist discontent, the MVA has spent $35 million since 1987 to improve service: building three new full-service offices, renovating six others, creating five "express" mini-offices and establishing a 55-agent, toll-free telephone information center in LaVale.
When Gov. William Donald Schaefer was elected in 1986, "the MVA had a history of poor service, and the governor made it very clear that the MVA would improve," said Paul E. Schurick, Mr. Schaefer's press secretary.
In recent years, Mr. Schaefer has made at least one surprise visit to Mondawmin to personally check out complaints.
MVA officials say the situation has vastly improved since 1987, citing statistics gathered in recently initiated customer surveys.
A September 1990 MVA mail survey of motorists, which drew 3,320 responses, showed 50 percent rated service excellent, 37 percent acceptable and 9 percent "needs improvement."
Face-to-face interviews with motorists at branch offices yielded even rosier statistics, with eight out of 10 rating service "excellent."
Some motorists interviewed by The Sun at random agreed that service is improving.
"It went rather quickly," said Rafael Betancourt, a 43-year-old Baltimore resident who visited Mondawmin recently. "It was really more than I expected. I think I spent a total of about six minutes in there to renew the plates. The last time I did this it took me more than half an hour to get it."
But some drivers still seem about as enthusiastic about visiting their local MVA office as submitting to oral surgery. Customer satisfaction seems to vary according to location.
The MVA mail survey showed that 24 percent of the motorists who used the Gaithersburg full-service office thought service should be improved, while 29 rated it "excellent." Customers seemed happiest with service in Annapolis, where 74 percent rated it excellent and only 4 percent said it needed improvement.
The most common complaints, according to MVA statistics, are long lines and a bad attitude among employees.
"I got directed to the wrong place first, and I waited there," groused a middle-aged woman in a trench coat, who went to Mondawmin recently to revise the title on the family car after her husband's death. "Then at the second place, I think she [the clerk] was making personal phone calls."
The woman, who would not give her name, said she was told she didn't have the required paperwork and would have to come back. Was it a long wait? "Yes, yes, yes!" she said. "And not the greatest competence, either."
Sylvia Hill, president of Chapter 22 of the Maryland Classified Employees Association, which represents workers at the MVA's Glen Burnie office, said motorists sometimes confuse thoroughness with sloth.
"We try to make sure that the work we turn out is accurate and up-to-date," she said. "It sometimes requires an enormous amount of research. To someone who is not aware of what's going on in the background, it may seem slow."
She added it was "hard to imagine" an MVA employee being less than polite, "but I guess it happens."
Edward D. Seidel, the MVA's manager of customer service, admitted the image of the MVA worker is not as good as it should be. "We're comedians' fodder," he said. But the state is trying to change that image, he added, by aggressively encouraging workers to be "courteous, friendly and efficient."
The MVA now requires workers to wear name tags, conducts customer surveys and stages seminars and workshops for workers on polite and friendly service, agency and union officials say.
Supervisors send employees big blue "You Were Mentioned" cards notifying them when a citizen praises their work.
Ms. Hill said MVA Administrator W. Marshall Rickert, appointed in 1985, has raised employee morale by attending union meetings, inviting workers to come to him with concerns and renovating offices.
"He has done everything," she said. "He has improved the facilities, the lighting, he has changed the counter around and given us up-to-date equipment."
The workload is heavy and growing. Last year, the MVA processed 8 million transactions, handled 1.4 million calls to its customer service line and dealt with 4,000 visitors a day at the Glen Burnie office alone.
The work is also getting more complex as the MVA is given new responsibilities, such as the emissions testing program. The MVA processes 48 forms and handles about 300 different kinds of transactions, from issuing learner's permits to enforcing the law suspending the licenses of people arrested for drunken driving. (MVA officials said they could not provide figures on error rates.)
The agency has rules for handling telephone and mail complaints, requiring administrators to respond within a given period of time. Each office's complaint files are also periodically reviewed by officials from headquarters.
But the system seems far from foolproof.
As proof of his agency's efforts to improve service, Thomas M. Walsh, associate administrator for field operations, pointed proudly to the administration's complaint, compliment and suggestion form, "How Is MVA Doing?" introduced in the past two years.
Over the past six months, he said, 1,280 citizens used the form to compliment the MVA, while only 166 registered complaints. The forms, he said, can be picked up at the information kiosks in the entrances of MVA offices statewide.
But when a reporter went to Glen Burnie's east entrance information kiosk, none were stacked on the form rack. Asked about it, an MVA worker said none was available. No forms were in the rack at the kiosk near the west entrance, either.
One employee said she had never heard of them; another directed the reporter to the personnel office.
At Mondawmin one recent afternoon, the forms were not on display. An MVA employee stationed at a door suggested the forms might be stored behind the information counter, but they weren't. Finally, the representative tracked down a stack of the forms: A 3-inch stack sat on a shelf behind a secretary's desk in a side office.
L Mr. Walsh said the forms should have been on public display.
In the next few years the MVA hopes to further improve service by building a new office in northern Baltimore County or Carroll County, renovate the 28-year-old Glen Burnie office and perhaps buy a new computer system.
But those projects could be jeopardized by the state Department of Transportation's current $583 million budget deficit and long-term financing problems.