AUGUSTA – Legislators are unhappy about spending millions of taxpayers’ dollars for a state computer system that should have been up and running in the Department of Motor Vehicles 14 months ago, and they say the mess illustrates why they need an independent office to oversee programs.

“This is the perfect thing for OPEGA” (Office of Program Evaluation and Governmental Accountability), Rep. Terrence McKenney, R-Cumberland, said Tuesday.

If OPEGA were operational, “it would absolutely have made a difference” in the computer system controversy, said Rep. David Trahan, R-Waldoboro, who has pushed for the independent office to evaluate programs for legislators.

Although money has been available for OPEGA for about a year, the office has not yet been created. And no organizational meeting of the legislative oversight board has been scheduled.

“That’s because of logistics,” said Rep. Matthew Dunlap, D-Old Town. The first organizational meeting will be scheduled before lawmakers adjourn April 21.

Lawmakers recently learned that the DMV has spent millions on an unfinished computer job, adding to last year’s state fiscal problems.

After working for more than four years to shift its huge database – including 1.4 million vehicle registrations and 900,000 drivers’ licenses – to a Web-based computer site, the project still isn’t done. The state has paid $7.3 million to Keane Inc., which agreed to create the system by December 2002. Secretary of State Dan Gwadosky recently fired the Boston-based firm and plans to get the project done in-house.

Gwadosky was to meet with the Legislature’s Transportation Committee at 1 p.m. Thursday to update members and answer questions.

If OPEGA were around, lawmakers could have ordered an evaluation of the DMV computer system and that information could have been used before any contract was awarded, Trahan said.

McKenney, a member of the Transportation Committee, said he’s been pushing to have OPEGA look into the DMV. “We deal with that budget in committee all the time,” McKenney said. “Maybe I’m all wet,” but “I don’t think they run it very efficiently.”

He questioned whether all of the DMV’s existing branch offices are needed, and whether more vehicle registrations could be done at town halls, online, at grocery stores or pharmacies, saving the state money.

He also questioned how the computer contract was awarded.

McKenney’s committee knew last year there were problems with the contract. “The committee can be faulted for being asleep at the switch,” but without OPEGA, legislators must depend on bureaucrats “to do the right thing,” McKenney said.

Gwadosky, a former legislator himself, disagreed Wednesday that his department is inefficient or that OPEGA would have made any difference in the computer problem. Taxpayers’ money has not been wasted, he insisted.

Gwadosky said that last summer, when Keane wasn’t building the system to the state’s requirements, “we stopped paying them and took over the project on our own,” saving the remaining $5.2 million.

There is a computer system up and running, but additional programs on the system have not yet been added, Gwadosky said. Citizens won’t notice problems with the contract because services will not be interrupted, he said.

His department generates $80 million a year at a cost of $30 million, processing thousands of drivers’ licenses, registrations and vehicle titles. “We’re required by law to have 13 branch offices,” Gwadosky said.

The DMV has more online services than any other, Gwadosky added, something he’s proud of. “We always look to get the best bang for the buck.”

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