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Flagler Tax Collector Suzanne Johnston Criticizes State’s License Plate Rule Changes

| October 9, 2012

The local tax collector's office stocks almost all the state's varieties of license plates. If the motor vehicle department has its way, that'll end in January 2014, when drivers will have to get their plates by mail from Tallahassee. (© FlaglerLive)

The local tax collector’s office stocks almost all the state’s varieties of license plates. If the motor vehicle department has its way, that’ll end in January 2014, when drivers will have to get their plates by mail from Tallahassee. (© FlaglerLive)

Last Updated: Oct. 10, 10:32 a.m.

When drivers renew their vehicle tags at Suzanne Johnston’s Tax Collector office in Bunnell, it takes about a couple of minutes. If drivers need a new license plate—a regular plate or one of the state’s 120 specialty license plates—it’s handed over then and there, unless it’s a vanity plate, which has to be special-ordered. In the year ending on June 30, Johnston’s office handled 91,445 vehicle registrations, three-quarters of them by walk-in traffic: Flagler County residents prefer to get their registration matters done with a live human being, Johnston says, and sometimes get the help the office provides. Many an elderly driver has his or her tags installed by one of Johnston’s employees.

Johnston fears much of that is about to change, and she is not pleased about it. But state motor vehicle officials say the fear is unfounded.

Florida residents may get to vote on the license plate redesign, which proposes these four choices. Click on the image for larger view.

Florida’s Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles is redesigning the state’s license plates. Johnston, citing talking points from an email circulated by the state’s tax collectors’ association, said the motor vehicle department was changing the distribution model of license plates, so that drivers would no longer be able to get them at local tax collectors’ offices. Drivers may still do their paperwork in those offices, but they’ll have to wait a week or two to receive their license plates from Tallahassee, by mail.

That’s not the case, Matt Montgomery, the department’s legislative affairs director, said Wednesday morning. “This whole concept of taking the license plate out of the tax collectors’ offices,” Montgomery said, “the buzzword is full centralization is what it’s been called, we tossed that idea around because other states have done it. We considered it, in addition to other types of distribution methods. But at the end of the day we came to the conclusion that more than half of our business is done in person with our tax collectors, and there wasn’t a case to be made to take that in-person service away from the tax collectors.”

Any suggestion that the in-person distribution of license plates will go away–as originally reported here on Tuesday–is “patently false,” Montgomery said. But the state does hope to increase its mail and online business, what it terms its “convenience method,” to around 35 percent. It sees the switch-over to the redesigned license plates as one way to “bolster” the department’s online presence, thus “creating economies of scale in storage, packaging and shipping and savings in efficiency and cost to taxpayers,” according to the department’s list of recommendations.

“Frankly, there’s been some confusion on these issues,” Kirsten Olsen-Doolan, a spokesperson for the department, said. “There’s been a lot of misunderstanding out there.”

The state also says it’ll save money and improve service to the point of ultimately being able to reduce costs to taxpayers.

Johnston has her doubts. She’s joined tax collectors across the state to criticize the motor vehicle department’s plans and warn that costs may eventually rise while localized customer service will suffer.

“We can do it just as cost-effectively and nicer for our residents, and they would have it right away,” Johnston said. “If it takes two or three weeks to get your plate in the mail, that’s really going to cause a lot of hardship for a lot of people. I don’t know how it would save them money. If they’re mailing the plate from Tallahassee, they’re going to have to add those mail fees to everybody.” And if residents don’t get their plates in the mail for whatever reason, Johnston says, they’ll be banging the counters and complaining at her office, and her staff will be powerless to do anything about it: local tax collectors won’t even have the records to trace the plate’s whereabouts.

The current Florida license plate design was first issued in 2003. In February, a committee made up largely of police agencies, the motor vehicle department, Florida Turnpike officials and tax collectors met to plan for a redesigned plate. The reason: too many current plates are being misread by red-light spy-cams, such as those spreading around Palm Coast, and by automatic readers at toll booths, as on the Florida Turnpike.  That’s causing big losses for state and local governments. The Florida Turnpike, for example, captures around 7 million images of license plates every month at toll facilities. Some 15 percent are rejected. The average toll is 0.91 cents. The Turnpike estimates that between January and March 2012, it lost $1.8 million in revenue because of badly read license plates. Police agencies, too, are having trouble running plates.

The committee decided to design new plates with bolder fonts and larger characters. Most of the 15 million license plates in use would have to be replaced, beginning  in January 2014. But policing and efficiency matters aside, there is little question that the redesign is driven by money.

“While designing our new plate and looking to modernize distribution methods,” the committee’s summary review and recommendations reads, “we discovered a potential return on investment which was impossible to ignore; issuing the new plates over a two-year period would generate a one-time revenue impact of $34-$56 million for the State of Florida, and a revenue increase to toll authorities of at least $44 million over 10 years.”

The plan, however, must first be approved by the Florida Cabinet, which takes up the issue in two weeks.

With that in mind, the Florida Tax Collectors Association, who count Johnston among their members, are mobilizing to oppose some of the changes. The redesign isn’t the issue, they say, but the state’s claims about saving money or improving service is. “I know that if they’re doing part of this work, they’re going to want part of the money,” Johnston said. That means either reducing the fees that are channeled through local offices (and sending more of that money to Tallahassee) or increasing the cost for drivers.

The state claims costs will remain what they are today, even though it concedes that the new plates will cost the state more money. The state wants to outsource the job to a new vendor. Currently, a plate costs $1.72 to produce. It’s made by prisoners. “Estimates from our vendor and others indicate that this price could increase to a price between $2.10 and $2.29 per plate,” a 40-page motor vehicle department document on the redesign, issued in September, concludes. However, the state estimates, postage fees would decrease slightly for the new, flat plates.

That may be the case, but most customers in Flagler don’t pay postage for their plates, since they get them directly at the tax collector’s office.

By Florida law, drivers are entitled to their license plate for 10 years, with annual or bi-annual tag renewals. The motor vehicle department wants to change the law to expedite the replacement schedule over two years, instead of 10. It acknowledges doing so to maximize profit: “Quickly replacing all license plates with an easily-distinguishable new design will prompt a higher percentage of drivers to renew their tag in order to avoid non-compliance fines,” the state says in its recommendation review.

The recommendations conclude: “Transferring the responsibility of mail processing from the tax collectors will allow for additional resources dedicated to personal service and face-to-face transactions.” Johnston doesn’t buy that, either, saying the transfer will reduce interaction and take away from local residents the choice to transact their business locally. “I just don’t want our residents to be inconvenienced,” Johnston said.

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19 Responses for “Flagler Tax Collector Suzanne Johnston Criticizes State’s License Plate Rule Changes”

  1. Chris says:

    Thanks Frank Scott!!

  2. Michelle says:

    Well on a lighter note, the new tags say Florida, not Cause the last time I checked, I lived in Florida, not my That has driven me crazy for years!

  3. Gia says:

    We’ve got more dumb idiots in Tala then before. The system to get plate was just fine now these idiots want to make it more complicated.

  4. John Boy says:

    Taking making plates away from Prison and giving to a “Friend” of the Fraudster makes a lot of sense especially if you are the new vendor. Follow the money, Scott won’t be Governor much longer but he is setting up a lifetime cash flow for himself from his vendor “Friend”

  5. Kip Durocher says:

    “The state wants to outsource the job to a new vendor.”

    Read that as glow scott kicking the business to a friend, once the
    DOC gets rid of their equipment the price will start to climb.

    glow is adept at stealing government money from taxpayers.
    standard MO for repugs.
    thanks glow scott voters.

  6. Samuel Smith says:

    Petition for a new state tag: Florida, the AARP state.

  7. rickg says:

    Hang in there Suzanne. This is nothing more but another rip off by the Governor. I’m sure the entire processing will cost more than it does now. Perhaps the Florida Association of Counties should get involved since they will be losing a bunch of those excess fees that TCs regularly give back to their respective county governments thus keeping that money local.

  8. Out of Business says:

    I wish the Tax Collector would conduct the annual (just once a year) tax certificate sale using a live human being as was done with Ms Pellicer when when she was Tax Collector and not use the current computer method bidding. Ms Johnston has sure cut out the local mom and pop investors because they have to compete against businesses with computer skills and those with much faster internets and from those all around the world, not just those who would personally attended tax certificate sales. Ms Johnston sure took away from the local investors when she made tax certificate sales all electronic taking away the method that worked well for many many years that catered to live human beings. Will Ms Johnston be laying off employees now that there will be less work here locally?

    • Mike says:

      Wellcome to the 21st century!! change is coming rapidly and if you do not adapt you will be run over by it. The computer model also takes out the scam factor, everyone who knows Flagler County knows that the good old boys are still trying to keep their hands in the till. This process helps eliminate the families of goverment workers in FC from being the only ones to profit from others losses in this county, and its about time!!!!!!

  9. Sam says:

    How much will it cost me if they ship my plate. Is this a push to help the Post Office? They will not ship it for free. I am into face to face service and the Tag Office has been doing a great job in the past 20 years since I moved here. How can we help to stop this move.

  10. ASPC says:

    This article does not mention those of us who support a cause by using Vanity Plates (Save the Ocean, Dolphins, Manataees, Wildlife, etc….). And those who wish to honor their branch of the Military?

    Bureaucrats in Tallahassee need to focus on the umemployment rates and how to attach businesses into our counties in order to our state residents back to work. Here’s an idea, have the license plate work done by those folks out of work to earn a living, instead of prisioners.

    Find the most depressed and highest unemployment rate county in the state, set up the license plate shop for the state there, and put folks back to work in that county to help ease the economic strife in that area.

    Oh wait, that would be little ole FLAGLER County with 12% unemployment that tops the state. Taken from the Bureau of Labor statistics “Flagler County has the highest unemployment rate (13.8 percent) in Florida in May 2011”

    Fact Checks:

  11. dogman says:

    gov scott must own the plate company!!!

  12. Clint says:

    Sooooo…All that money the state will save can be used to LOWER the gasoline prices,,,right ?

  13. Edward Kormanyos says:

    Only politicians and bureaucrats could think you can save money by sorting, packaging, and individually mailing each car’s plate instead of sending each county’s tens of thousands of plates in bulk. Where are they going to build the sorting center and how many persons will be needed to staff the center. Will the need a customer service center to correct the inevitable mistakes. All of this is presently done locally by local employees face-to-face. Just think how much easier to call Tallahassee… dial 1 if ….dial 2 if….dial3 if….and etcetra ad nauseum only to get the inevitable “your wait time is”.

  14. Sad Times says:

    Oh, dear… and the stupidities go on and on…the process works beautifully here in Palm Coast… I came from a place where one spent hours …acquiring license plates, etc. Thus, I always had a book with me… to pass the time.

    However, a very pleasant experience awaited me here. I approached the location, with book in hand, expecting the usual long wait. Surprise of all surprises… I did not even get to open my book! There was no waiting at all… and I was out of there in less than 15 minutes!

    Ever since, I continue to experience the fun of going to renew my license plate! The people were awesome… polite, friendly, and efficient! It could not have been a better experience. I surely hate to see “progress” ruin this experience and efficiency.

  15. sam8131 says:

    Sounds like they are trying to disenfranchise elderly and black Florida drivers; sue ’em!

  16. Deep South says:

    I’m all for it, If you can’t register online’ maybe it will eliminate some of those idiots who shouldn’t be driving in the first place.

  17. John Boy says:

    The plates will be made in China and shipped via FEDX. Kills three birds with one stone. Eliminates “Free” labor provided by prisoners, provides a boost to FEDX and eliminates local jobs. Typical Republican strategy, screw things up as much as possible at an increased cost. Why do we not have 12 questions on the November Ballot, the 11 are all initiated by the Republican Legislators, the missing one is the ability of the people to recall the Fraudster who calls himself Grabinor.

  18. Elaygee says:

    Great idea to centralize the license plate distribution and they should centralize the registration process too. fraud abounds at all the local offices.

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