ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – It was a change the state made, hoping to better notify tens of thousands of New Mexico drivers about expiring emissions tests.
Instead, the New Mexico Motor Vehicle Division (MVD) created a major problem that’s led to the suspension of at least 3,643 car registrations, a $30 dollar fine for some, and lingering effects that still appear to be confusing a lot of car owners.
The problem stems from a quiet change that MVD made to the postcards the agency sends to car owners who need to re-register their vehicle. In late 2016, MVD removed all reminders about emissions tests from the re-registration postcards, instead, opting to send separate letters about emissions. By November, it became clear drivers either weren’t getting, or weren’t seeing the new notices.
While the agency has apologized for the problem, claiming they’ve fixed it, reinstated many drivers’ suspended registrations, and refunded some people who’ve paid the fee, MVD has also tried to say the emissions test reminders are a “courtesy.”
However, KRQE News 13 has found state rules showing that the reminders are a requirement of MVD.
North Valley Albuquerque resident Sandy Ohlgren is one of the drivers who’s facing a fine because of the state’s emissions test notification switch.
“It felt like a scam to ask me for $30 dollars for something I felt wasn’t my mistake,” said Ohlgren.
The retired teacher has lived in New Mexico since 1999 and relies on her car to get to various volunteer activities. She also says she’s always followed MVD’s rules, registering her car and getting an emissions check when necessary.
Since the early 1980’s, most Bernalillo County drivers have been taking their cars to get emissions tests as part of the registration or re-registration process. State law requires emissions tests every two years for gasoline powered cars from 1983 and newer in Bernalillo County.
Ohlgren says it came as a surprise when the state said it was suspending her registration.
“It made me angry and frustrated, and not knowing what to do about it exactly,” said Ohlgren.
Her ordeal started on January 23, 2017, when Ohlgren got an email from the state, reminding her it was time to re-register her car. Ohlgren filed her registration renewal paperwork with MVD online on January 31, paying a $95 dollar fee. MVD took the payment, and within a few weeks, Ohlgren got new registration stickers for her car.
“I just thought everything was fine,” said Ohlgren.
But it wasn’t fine. On February 21, the state emailed Sandy saying her registration was being suspended, “due to not showing proof of emissions.”
To drive her car again, MVD wanted proof of a valid emissions test, and a $30 dollar “reinstatement fee.”
“Which I guess is the part that angered me the most,” said Ohlgren, about the fee. “Because I felt that I had followed the law and done what they required.”
In the registration suspension email sent to Ohlgren, MVD claimed “a letter and/or email was sent approximately 30 days ago,” notifying her that her emissions test was set to expire. But Ohlgren says that’s not true. She says the state never emailed or sent a letter telling her about her expiring emissions test.
“I have absolutely no recollection of ever getting notification, I think I would have taken note of that,” said Ohlgren. “In the past, you’ve always received a notice and I’ve always paid attention to it.”
Ohlgren isn’t the only driver affected either. Since September 2016, MVD has suspended and reinstated at least 3,643 car registrations. At least 1,011 people have paid the emissions test reinstatement fee. The number of people who’ve paid that fee may include both car owners who weren’t notified of an expiring emissions test, and car owners who truly ignored an emissions test notice.
The problem started in September 2016. Without telling anyone, MVD removed the traditional emissions test reminder from car registration postcards. Instead, MVD began sending separate emissions test letters to people.
“It drives me nuts, it really does,” said Greg Howland, owner of FasTest Emissions in Albuquerque.
Howland operates three emissions test centers in Albuquerque. He’s gotten an earful from hundreds of customers who say they never got an emissions test notification, only a notice that their registration was being suspended.
“They were used to seeing emissions test required,” said Howland of the old registration postcards. “And (drivers) aren’t seeing it anymore, so they’re ignoring it.”
Howland says he’s also still hearing from people who are effected, mainly the elderly.
“I get at least two a day, at least two a day, and they wonder… they ask me, ‘what is this thing all about?’ And I try to explain it to them, and they go, ‘gees you know, that’s really stupid,” said Howland.
Howland says MVD never told emissions test shops. He says he’s also heard from employees of the agency in charge of the emissions program that they were never told about the change in emissions test notices. The emissions program is administratively run by the “Vehicle Pollution Management Division” of the city of Albuquerque’s Environmental Health Department. The program is mandated by state law, and only applies to cars in Bernalillo County.
“You always want to make it simple, you don’t want to make it complicated and that’s what they’ve done,” said Howland.
What went wrong?
The New Mexico Department of Tax and Revenue (TRD) oversees the state’s Motor Vehicle Division. In an interview with KRQE News 13, TRD Spokesman Ben Cloutier said the change began last year when MVD implemented a new computer database system called “Tapestry.”
“Our old computer system was about 30 years old, considered one of the worst in the country, now we’ve replaced it with a top of the line system, we came in under budget, it’s a really fantastic system,” said Cloutier.
Cloutier says the more powerful computer system allows MVD’s to send different types of automated notices. The change to the emissions notifications was MVD’s effort to give a more accurate notice to drivers about when their emissions tests expire.
“The executive team decided that it would make more sense to allow for that reminder to go out about a month before your emissions rather than getting it with your registration renewal reminder, because (the emissions test and car registration expiration dates) don’t necessarily line up,” said Cloutier.
KRQE News 13 asked Cloutier why the MVD didn’t do a public awareness campaign about the switch in notification methods. Cloutier implied that MVD didn’t think the public needed any extra warning.
“Well since they’re getting both notices by mail, it seemed that there wouldn’t be much of a difference, for instance, if people are looking at their mail, they should be able to see that letter come in and be able to say, ‘hey, my emissions testing is coming up,’” said Cloutier. “Since they’re getting both notices by mail, it seemed that there wouldn’t be much of a difference.”
But the difference is that the new system didn’t work. MVD says the emissions test notices were “intermittent” in reaching customers because of “input issues.”
“There was an error in sending out the new letters when the system went into effect,” said Cloutier.
MVD says some notices weren’t sent at all. But they claim the problem was fixed on January 10, 2017.
However, some drivers don’t buy it. Sandy Ohlgren got an email that her registration was suspended on February 21, 2017. According to the explanation given on how MVD’s new system works, an emissions test notice should have hit Ohlgren’s email inbox or mailbox around January 20.
“There was nothing that came,” said Ohlgren. “I am pretty meticulous about reading my mail.”
While MVD says it’s sorry for any problems they’ve caused drivers, they also tried to shift the ultimate blame on to drivers to keep track of their own tests.
In multiple emails, MVD told KRQE News 13 that emissions test reminders are “courtesy,” and not a requirement.
“That is something we try to do to help our customers,” said Cloutier, in part, when asked if MVD believes the notices are a courtesy.
However, the state’s own rules indicate that emissions tests notices aren’t just a “courtesy” – they’re a requirement that MVD has agreed on under the New Mexico Administrative Code (NMAC).
As described by the New Mexico Department of Tax and Revenue, the NMAC is, “the official collection of current rules (regulations) written and filed by state agencies to clarify and interpret laws passed by the Legislature.”
NMAC 20.11.100 establishes the Albuquerque – Bernalillo County Air Quality Control Board, and the rules outlining its operations, including the Vehicle Pollution Management Division, which runs the emissions program covering Bernalillo County. According to section 14, part A, the MVD “shall distribute notices or other appropriate information owners of vehicles applying for re-registration” under the emissions program.
126.96.36.199 SHEDULING OF INSPECTIONS:
A. Inspection and registration: Every motor vehicle, as defined in 188.8.131.52 NMAC, shall be inspected biennially unless it is determined to emit quantities of CO or HC between 75% and 100% of its maximum allowable standard listed in Table I of Subsection A of 184.108.40.206 NMAC, in which case it shall be issued a provisional pass certificate good only for a one year registration and shall be required to be inspected again the following year prior to registration. The MVD shall distribute notices or other appropriate information to owners of vehicles applying for re-registration in accordance with the written agreement between the MVD and the program manager. Vehicles shall also be inspected when sold and when titles are transferred. A person who believes he has a vehicle for which he has been erroneously notified of inspection may petition the program manager to correct the error.
–New Mexico Administrative Code – Title 20 (Environmental Protection,) Chapter 11, (Alb.-BernCo. Air Quality Control Board,) Part 100 (Motor Vehicle Inspection — Decentralized)
After showing the rules to MVD and Tax and Revenue Department spokesman Ben Cloutier, he agreed.
“Well, according to this, we are supposed to be sending them out, and we are, so that is good news. And I may have been misinformed if that was not the case,” said Cloutier.
KRQE News 13 also contacted the Vehicle Pollution Management Division (VPMD) to ask if the division has ever changed its written agreement between MVD and the VPMD program manager. The city of Albuquerque’s Environmental Health Department (which oversees VPMD) said there have been no changes to the program, or the agreement related to emissions test notifications.
“We’ve been doing it that way for many years,” said Danny Nevarez, deputy director for Albuquerque’s Environmental Health Department.
MVD says it will keep sending emissions reminders to drivers, and it’s still giving refunds to drivers who’ve paid any penalty fees because of the notification problem.
“Feel free to come into an office or call us and we’ll make sure to take care of you,” said Cloutier.
But some drivers, like Sandy Ohlgren, wish that MVD had taken care from the start.
“It takes up time that I would want to spend doing other things,” said Ohlgren. “It’s time consuming and I’m not at the end of it yet.”