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Need a driver’s license? Appointments are a month away, and it’s now an election issue.

The coronavirus has forced tax collectors statewide to change how they do business. Meantime, Hillsborough is about to elect a new one.

It’s hard to provide great service when social distancing restricts how many customers you can see.

Still, there are better ways to do it, say candidates running for Hillsborough County Tax Collector.

Since May 4, you can only do business with the office by appointment — and the next available appointment is usually 30 days out. Walk-ins are possible, but only when someone doesn’t show up. That leaves a number of people driving around with expired driver’s licenses and vehicle tags.

What’s more, you have to wait outside to be called in for your appointment — a sticky prospect during the Florida summer.

When Mike Merino, 68, of Tampa, finally reached an employee at the tax collector’s Drew Park Office, he got a tongue-in-cheek reply to his frustrations: “Welcome to the world of government.”

Merino was there to renew tags on a trailer he uses to help friends haul debris to the dump. He waited two weeks to get an appointment, and when he showed up, he was told he needed to get the trailer weighed before the tags could be renewed. That meant driving to a weigh station with expired tags and another two-week wait.

“I shook my head, and I said, ‘You know, what is there to argue about?‘ I had no choice because I needed a tag for that trailer.”

The new challenges come at a transitional time for the Tax Collector’s Office. Doug Belden, who has led the office for more than 20 years, isn’t seeking reelection in November.

Related: Florida vote-by-mail legal battle reaches settlement

Longtime staff member Nancy Millan is facing off in August against former school board member April Griffin for the Democratic nomination. Millan has her boss’s endorsement. The winner faces Republican TK Mathew, who describes himself on his website as a conservative businessman.

Nancy Millan
Nancy Millan [ Courtesy of Nancy Millan ]

Millan and Griffin say they would have dealt with the pandemic differently than Belden. Mathew did not respond to requests for comment.

Millan defends the office, saying it has maintained a “gold-standard level of service” while abiding by government mandates like social distancing and mask-wearing. One new service in development since April: an appointment text-reminder signup at the office’s website that tells people when they can get in line. It may be available at all locations by August, said Dale Hoffman, director of branch operations.

Still, Millan said she would have worked to provide greater accessibility to customers through online services and more community outreach.

She also said service could be coordinated better with the agencies the office deals with, such as the state Department of Motors Vehicles and the court clerk.

“I would want to have some serious talks with all of the agencies involved so that we can streamline this process so that the customer or whoever is renewing doesn’t have to go through so much red tape,” Millan said.

Closer relations take time, Millan said, but one change she could make immediately as tax collector is creating an intake office where customers could drop off documents and contact information rather than waiting around for them to be processed.

Griffin said the Tax Collector’s Office should have responded to the pandemic restrictions by expanding hours and moving personnel among its eight locations.

“I don’t see from the current tax collector or his senior staff ... there doesn’t seem to be any sort of urgency on their part to relieve the stress on this community,” Griffin said, “and, by the way, on the people that work there.”

The office did move personnel around, Hoffman said, reassigning those who were working at two locations it has closed temporarily.

Griffin wants to use technology to make the office more accessible.

She questioned why customers aren’t able to check-in at tax collector’s offices then wait in their car for a text message inviting them to enter. Pasco County has set up similar “ticketless queues” as an option for customers at all tax collector’s offices.

To make services more accessible, Griffin also would create mobile units for places such as senior living centers where people might not have vehicles but need to have state identification cards renewed.

With Belden leaving the Tax Collector’s Office, Griffin said many who have worked with him for years may be leaving, too, creating a gap she would fill with a nationwide talent search.

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Belden said he was pleased with how his office has dealt with the challenges the pandemic has presented. He said he has relied on science and the advice of officials at the Hillsborough County Health Department to guide decisions, which have stressed the importance of protecting the health of customers and employees.

“People have to come to the tax collector’s office,” Belden said. “They don’t have to go to Publix. They don’t have to go to Walmart. They deliver. But if you need a driver’s license, you’ve got to come to my office.”

Belden pointed to remote driver’s license tests as one way the office has been able to continue offering services through the pandemic. Other measures include installing plexiglass barriers, mandating facemasks, checking the temperature of people who enter and a rigorous disinfecting routine.

Tax collector offices are where Florida residents pay taxes and purchase hunting or fishing licenses as well as obtain and renew vehicle registrations and driver’s licenses. In response to the delays made necessary by coronavirus restrictions, the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles has extended the expiration dates for driver’s licenses three times, but the extensions are over now.

County offices are dealing with the challenge in different ways.

All six tax collector’s locations in Orange County are open by appointment only. Pinellas and Palm Beach counties restrict service to county residents only, and in Miami-Dade, hours of operation are limited to 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday.

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In Hillsborough, an all-appointment system hasn’t put an end to groups gathering at offices. On Monday afternoon, about 15 people stood outside the tax collector’s Drew Park office on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard waiting to be called one at a time for a temperature and mask check and then their appointment. It was 93 degrees with a heat index of 102. One man shielded his face from the sun with a Florida license plate while he talked on the phone.

Time spent waiting on the phone has gone up, too, in Hillsborough.

From early March, when the first case of coronavirus was reported in Florida, through July 17, the Tax Collector’s Office call center received 282,012 calls, according to data shared by the office. On average, customers were on hold for about 10 minutes before speaking to someone and they hung up rather than wait longer about 28 percent of the time.

That compares with 173,228 calls received by the office during the same period the year before. Customers were on hold for an average of just 47 seconds and had a hang-up rate of 7 percent.