Aug 5, 2011 9:53 AM by Lauren Wilson & AP
BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - A computer foul-up caused Louisiana car and truck owners to be charged late fees they shouldn't have paid for their vehicle registrations, the chairman of the state Senate Transportation Committee said Thursday.
After state Sen. Joe McPhereson raised complaints, the Jindal administration said any late penalties paid erroneously would be automatically refunded.
"If we're going to err, we're going to err on the side of the consumer," said Col. Mike Edmonson, head of the Department of Public Safety, which oversees the Office of Motor Vehicles.
McPherson, D-Woodworth, also suggested that the OMV misled people about the computer troubles.
"This is not the way we ought to be doing business in Louisiana," McPherson said in a statement.
The problem found in March caused snags in verifying vehicle owners' addresses so they could be mailed renewal notices, McPherson said. He said as many as 40 percent of vehicle owners whose registrations were due to expire since June didn't get the 60-day notifications they should have received.
McPherson sent a letter to OMV Commissioner Nick Gautreaux on Thursday, urging him to waive the penalties because of the problem.
"I can safely say that all of the citizens of the state have come to rely upon notice from OMV that their vehicle registration needs to be renewed. It seems only fair then that you would initiate administrative action to waive any penalty assessed by the Office of Motor Vehicles resulting from such failure to mail vehicle registration renewal invitations and to refund such penalties," the senator wrote.
Gautreaux said if his office couldn't validate an address, the renewal notice wasn't sent. He said OMV wanted to protect drivers' personal information, which is included in the notice.
"That's a decision I think was made wisely," he said.
Registration renewal fees and requirements vary depending on the type and value of the vehicle. If not renewed on time, the state charges a $3 late fee and a penalty tallied on a sliding scale tied to how late the renewal was. It was unclear how many people didn't get the renewal notices.
Edmonson said the office hoped to have the computer glitch fixed within the next few weeks. In the meantime, he has ordered the OMV to stop assessing late fees until the problem is corrected.
Consumers also can request the refund, but Edmonson said the OMV also will review applications renewed since March to determine if anyone was improperly charged. If they were, they will be issued a refund, he said.
To request a refund of the late fee and penalties, Gautreaux said his office will post a waiver request for vehicle owners at www.expresslane.org .
The OMV sent out a statement in July, saying that emails suggesting the renewal notices were not being mailed out because of state budget cuts were untrue. But Gautreaux's statement didn't explain the computer glitch or note that some people might not be getting their notices because of address verification problems.
McPherson said "that seemed to mislead citizens about the computer problem and its impact on the renewal notification process."
The Senate and House transportation committees plan an Aug. 18 hearing on the issue.