Given the surge in demand for in-person service, the DMV Select office in Heathsville has closed for a second year to get through county tax season, and it won’t reopen until January 3.

DMV Select offices are independently-run operations that offer a limited list of services. The Northumberland Treasurer’s Office opened the Heathsville branch 16 years ago and had been able to continually offer DMV service because “the volume of work wasn’t that great.”

But since the pandemic “things have changed dramatically,” said Northumberland Treasurer Ellen Kirby.

Struggling to keep up

In the early days of the pandemic, DMV’s official customer service centers closed their doors for in-person service altogether, and since they started reopening on May 20, the vast majority of transactions haven’t been conducted in person at a traditional full-service DMV office, said DMV public relations manager Brandy Brubaker.

Instead customers have turned to other “service delivery methods” like the DMV Select in Heathsville.

At one point during the pandemic, about a dozen DMV Select locations were open without appointments. But eventually, Heathsville was the only one east of Richmond, between Northern Virginia and the North Carolina border that was accepting walk-ins.

We became so overwhelmed that we couldn’t accommodate all of the people. The building would be packed, and we had to focus on social distancing. So, in May, we had to go to appointments for title work, said Kirby.  

Still, the flow of customers was constant. In addition to the serving residents of the Northern Neck, people were coming from places like Chesterfield, Norfolk, Northern Virginia, Abingdon and Bristol.

The used car market has been on fire during the pandemic, and title work—the bulk of what people come to Heathsville seeking—is a service that a lot of people want to do in person.

The Heathsville DMV Select changed operations numerous times trying to handle the volume of DMV customers. It went from live telephone appointments to an automated system to cut phone time. The office slashed the DMV hours, eventually scaling back to a 2:30 p.m. cutoff. And DMV services were cut to four days a week.

Still, the volume of DMV work has been so great the treasurer and her four-person team have struggled to keep up with their primary duties, which is county business.

“We’ve tried all sorts of things to make this work,” said Kirby. But now, it’s time to prepare for billing and collecting taxes, which normally starts in August.

I know how much people have come to depend on us. If there was any way we could continue to offer DMV services this fall, we would do it, Kirby said. But, it’s just not humanly possible to get everything done, and we have to put county taxes first. That work cannot be delayed.

Truly, it really was a hard decision to suspend DMV services for the season. But I’m an optimist, Kirby added. “Things should start to ease up once the full-service DMV Customer Service Centers open without appointments, possibly within a month.”

The Northern Neck only had two DMV options, and now has one, Kilmarnock

The Kilmarnock office may start offering title appointments by September 14, said Brubaker.

However, she portrays DMV’s current mode of operations as being what customers want.

“During the pandemic, customers shifted the way they conduct business with DMV in that more customers are now conducting DMV business by our most convenient service delivery methods,, by mail, and over the phone, whenever possible,” Brubaker said.

She added that the most recent customer satisfaction survey shows, “77 percent of DMV customers served via the appointment system statewide would like to see DMV continue service by appointment.”

But Virginia’s lawmakers appear less impressed and are requiring DMV to provide the governor and the General Assembly with an operating plan that includes serving walk-in customers later this fall and ensuring all customer service centers are open to do it.

DMV is also adding more online services and expanding the number of DMV Select partners “to even out the workload.”

We are currently pursuing an additional partner in your area, Brubaker said.