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DMV CLOSINGS IN ERIE DRIVE UP REVENUES FOR NEARBY COUNTIES

Erie County's budget mess is spilling into neighboring counties.

And they're happy about it.

Motorists avoiding a potential two-hour wait in line at Erie County's sole auto bureau in Depew are traveling by the hundreds to surrounding counties to do their business with the state Department of Motor Vehicles in North Tonawanda, Lockport, Batavia, Dunkirk and Delevan.

It is an unexpected boon to them.

Counties that operate auto bureaus for the state keep 12.7 percent of the fees for processing most transactions, so they've been glad to help out.

"All counties are hurting," said Sandra Sopak, Chautauqua County clerk. "We need any extra revenue we can get."

Chautauqua County is projecting at least a quarter-million dollars of new revenue thanks to motorists from Erie County.

Genesee County is anticipating tens of thousands of dollars in additional revenue with the increased business.

And Niagara County expects to rake in $1 million more in revenue this year based on the extra auto bureau traffic from Erie County drivers.

The Erie County Legislature, meanwhile, on Thursday will consider a proposal to reopen its downtown auto bureau.

"If this pace continues," said Niagara County Clerk Wayne F. Jagow, "even if Erie County opens another office, we're still looking at $1 million."

The rest of Western New York isn't gloating about Erie County's misfortune, but the added revenue may help its auto bureaus pay for themselves and more this year.

Under state law that dates back decades, county clerks are required to provide a local office for residents to do business with the Department of Motor Vehicles.

The state does run 32 DMV offices throughout New York, mostly in downstate counties that were either exempt at the time of legislation or had a new law passed allowing them to opt out of auto bureau business, according to Christine Burling, a spokeswoman with the state.

But probably none of the 107 county-run operations across the state has broken even in recent years, said Cattaraugus County Clerk James K. Griffith.

Last year, for example, it cost roughly $3.4 million for Erie County to run four auto bureaus, which generated $3.1 million.

"County taxpayers pay for the cost, and the bulk of the money goes to Albany," Griffith said.

Erie County Clerk David J. Swarts and others are counting on an increase in some Motor Vehicle Department fees later this year to trickle down to counties and boost their auto bureau revenue.

Swarts, meanwhile, is trying to reopen at least one of the three auto bureaus closed during the county's fiscal crisis.

Swarts' proposal to the County Legislature on Thursday would increase cover-page fees -- a fee on documents filed with the clerk's office -- which would generate enough money to staff the downtown auto bureau and ease the workload in the registrar's office.

"We've said all along, by closing down the auto bureaus, we're going to lose well over $2 million in revenue and will create a greater deficit for the county overall," Swarts said.

While surrounding counties are scooping up that revenue, it hasn't been easy keeping up with the extra business.

The Delevan and Little Valley auto bureaus are seeing about 70 more customers a day, said Griffith of Cattaraugus County.

The conveniently located auto bureau in Batavia has been processing an extra 100 transactions a day, said Genesee County Clerk Don M. Read.

Ditto in Chautauqua County's Dunkirk auto bureau. Its Mayville auto bureau, meanwhile, has been doing a lot of work for Erie County's auto dealers, said Sopak, Chautauqua County clerk.

"It's very hard on my staff, and it's very stressful," Sopak said.

But Niagara County's three auto bureaus in North Tonawanda, Lockport and Niagara Falls are getting hit the hardest.

As a result, Niagara County agreed to add some part-timers and hire private security to help keep order at the auto bureaus. Staff members are even encouraging people to do their transactions by mail and over the Internet, if possible.

"Which is very difficult for me to do, because that means our county loses 12.7 percent," Jagow said, "but we have to be realistic with the amount of business we can handle."

It wouldn't be unusual, in fact, if Erie County motorists had to wait a couple hours in line at the North Tonawanda branch.

In that case, it may be just as easy to go to the auto bureau in Depew.

e-mail: jrey@buffnews.com

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