Having a pleasant passport experience

Silvia Saldarriaga almost couldn't get back to the United States from Colombia in January.

The 20-year-old recreational traveler, who likes to visit her native country and explore other cultures around the world, had her passport expire just three weeks after she left the states, and coming back was a hassle, she said.

"My passport expired a week before my flight back," she said.

One of the first things on her list when she got back was to get a new passport — and her place of choice was Huntington Beach City Hall, where the city clerk's office also operates as a passport-accepting facility for residents and the surrounding communities.

The city provides the service just like a post office or a federal building would, but some of the money stays with Huntington Beach. The city gets about $100,000 in revenue each year, money that goes to the general fund.

The service at the city clerk's office began in February 2000 as a way to generate revenue. But the city clerk's office quickly earned a reputation that is different from the routine drill of standing in long lines and waiting for long hours.

The city clerk's office is set up in a way that provides a low-pressure, quiet atmosphere. Relaxing music plays in the background, while a small playground is set up for children to play while their parents are taking pictures and getting their paperwork done.

"The most important thing about our services here is we stand out from others because we do help people when they run into trouble," said Robin Lugar, assistant city clerk, who's in charge of the passport services.

Lugar said at other locations, people are usually given a number and are told to call if they don't receive their passport or birth certificate. But in Huntington Beach, the employees take the steps to help customers when these issues come up, she said.

"If they come to us, we'll help," Lugar said. "That's why we stand out. We'll go ahead and try to find out what's happening to it."

Scott Cooper is another recreational traveler who went to City Hall to renew his passport before it expires in May. The first time Cooper received a passport was in 2000, and it was at the Huntington Beach city clerk's office, he said.

"When I got it here, it was so much faster," said Cooper, 54, who has upcoming trips in the summer and fall. "I had the option to renew it online, but I wanted to make sure everything was done right."

It costs $110 plus an additional $25 processing fee to get a passport done, Lugar said. That $25 is what stays in the city, City Clerk Joan Flynn said. Since the city began offering the service, it has earned more than $1 million in revenue and $800,000 in net profit, she said.

One of the reasons Flynn stresses a comfortable environment is because not everyone receiving a passport is going on vacation and not everyone traveling is happy, she said. Some are traveling because of a death in the family, divorce or military duties.

The office sees it all, Flynn said — even a customer who found out they were adopted while at City Hall getting their passport done.

"We take great pride in providing great service," she said.

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