WESTERLY — Having a state Division of Motor Vehicles office in Town Hall is not unlike driving a $2,000 used car. It might get you back and forth for a while but the clunker grows old fast.
That captures the sentiment expressed by members of the Town Council in recent weeks as they discussed whether to renew the state agency’s lease, which expires at the end of the month. The DMV has operated a branch office in a former conference room in Town Hall on Fridays from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. since May 2012.
Councilors said they were aware of complaints from Town Hall workers that they are treated rudely by DMV customers. The customers have also damaged the Council Chambers, which is used as a waiting area for the DMV, councilors said. The DMV pays $1 per year for its lease. Under the arrangement, the town also picks up the the cost of electricity, heating, and custodial service.
“I can’t imagine a worse tenant. The DMV has absolutely abused this building to the fullest,” said Councilor Karen Cioffi, who formerly worked at Town Hall as director of human services. Cioffi said she would not support the new lease sought by the division.
The DMV had previously worked under three-year leases but is now seeking a five-year deal.
A state law sponsored by Rep. Sam Azzinaro, D-Westerly, requires the DMV to operate in the town at least one day per week. Azzinaro fought for the law after the DMV’s full-time office on Franklin Street closed in 2008.
Councilor Mario Celico said he would support a new lease but only if an effort to find a new space for the DMV was undertaken and if the DMV agreed to help the town with the cost of utilities and custodial services. Even if the council decided not to renew the lease, Celico said, the DMV would have to find a new location in town because of the law.
Councilor Philip Overton advised a more cautious approach.
“I don’t want to play hardball … what I don’t want to have happen is the citizens of Westerly lose the DMV privileges that we have,” Overton said. He went on to say he would prefer that the DMV find a different location in town or at the very least pay more than $1 per year.
Paul Grimaldi, a DMV spokesman, told The Sun that while the division is required to maintain a one-day-per-week operation in Westerly, it has no funds in its budget to pay rent. Regarding the possibility of paying for custodial and other costs, Grimaldi said, “We’re open to discussing with the town a new arrangement for Town Hall services.”
Azzinaro told The Sun he has heard concerns about DMV customers being a burden to Town Hall staff members, and he understands them. While it might be difficult for the DMV to move to a new location, Azzinaro said, he would speak with Walter R. Craddock, the director, about the agency providing payment for the services it uses at Town Hall.
State Sen. Dennis Algiere, R-Westerly, said he has started to look for a new location. A storefront would be ideal, he said. “I don’t disagree with the council’s direction. It probably isn’t the best place. It’s crowded and congested.”
This is not the first time the DMV has offered services in Town Hall. In 1959, when Azzinaro got his driver’s license, he did so at an office in the basement in a space now occupied by the town’s planning office.