County attorney's office had computer access suspended for overdue bill

It all makes sense, in a government sort of way.

The total was 40 cents. The bill was 60 days late. And there was, of course, the small matter of the Oregon Constitution to consider.

And so it was that the Multnomah County attorney's office was without its computerized access to state Department of Motor Vehicles records for a while last month. Cut off by the DMV for nonpayment - of a 40-cent bill.

The county attorney's office pays for the service each time it retrieves a DMV record. Like every other agency or insurance company that has the service, it pays its bill at the end of every month. Or it usually does.

It's not entirely clear how an unpaid bill amounted to 40 cents because the minimum charge for a DMV record is a dollar. But it did. So the DMV informed the county attorney's office through a letter sometime in late January or early February that it would be suspending the office's access to the service until the bill was paid.

But the DMV doesn't take cash, or coins, for that matter. And 40-cent checks don't flow easily from government check-writer's pens. So Multnomah County Attorney Agnes Sowle got out her own checkbook to resolve the matter.

Except that she accidentally wrote 2006 on the date of the check, rather than 2007. Which the DMV sent back to her, for correction. And which she then sent off again, with correction.

'It took four 37-cent stamps for them to get their 40 cents,' she says, laughing.

DMV spokesman David House couldn't find any specifics on the county attorney's bill problems - and couldn't find any information indicating that the office was ever late, actually.

But in general, House says, any entity with a bill that is more than 60 days past due - no matter the amount - has its account suspended until the bill is paid.

A voter-approved amendment to the Oregon Constitution requires that all highway-fund dollars go directly into the roads, House says. Which means that any 'off-mission' activities - like providing computerized access to records - have to recoup 100 percent of their costs. Which means that 40-cent bills must be paid.

'The same rule applies to all the accounts,' House said. 'There's no threshold. Because the Oregon Constitution … it doesn't say, 'OK. Well, it's OK if it's less than a dollar.' It doesn't say that. So we have to collect it.'

The moral to the story for Sowle: 'Sometimes the government gets frustrated, too, by what the government does. Sometimes, it's not just the public that gets frustrated by the godawful bureaucracy. Sometimes we do, too.'

The county attorney's office access to DMV records now has been restored. In fact, every agency in Multnomah County appears to be in good standing with the DMV on computer access bills.

'Right now … everybody in county government is current,' House said.

For which Multnomah County taxpayers will no doubt breathe a huge sigh of relief.

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