Florida’s tax collectors, local officers directly accountable to the public, have warned that a sweeping plan to change the way Florida’s license tags are issued will create a host of unanticipated problems for drivers – including delays, lack of accountability, higher costs to consumers and reduced customer service.


 



At an Oct. 17 news conference, Florida’s 67 tax collectors voiced concerns about proposals that would eliminate the state’s current system for fulfilling mail and online orders at the local level and urged the governor and cabinet to carefully review any proposal to privatize and centralize that function.



In discussions with the tax collectors, Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles (DHSMV) Executive Director Julie Jones has been responsive to these concerns and agreed to separate consideration of the distribution method from plans to redesign all vehicle tags.



But the tax collectors want clearer assurances the state will not go to a privatized, centralized distribution system, and offered recommendations that would make the current system more efficient and generate more savings than the proposed changes.



The tax collectors are joined in their concerns by the state’s foremost consumer advocate and a coalition of organizations that fear the new system will fail to meet car purchasers’ and fleet owners’ need for speedy issuance of vehicle tags. In addition, a new report by Capital Analytics,  a policy research company headed by longtime government budget director David Coburn, finds that the plan to issue tags from a centralized location would not produce the savings projected by the state.



“Our issue is not with the change in the plates. Our concern is with the idea of scrapping a system that currently works well for the people of our counties and replacing it with a system that hurts customer service, costs drivers more money and provides no real benefit to the people,” said Leon County Tax Collector Doris Maloy, president of Florida Tax Collectors, Inc. “If the state plans to reissue every tag in Florida within two years, we are prepared to accomplish that with an emphasis on outstanding, local customer service.”



DHSMV recently announced plans to redesign Florida’s license tags using a flat plate technology, which it says will make the tags more readable by tollbooth and red light cameras.  The department has also proposed turning production and distribution of many tags to a single private company, removing the tax collectors from their public service role distributing convenience tag renewals.



Maloy said the proposal will cost consumers money in the 16 counties that currently add no service charge when fulfilling mail and Internet orders, since the private vendor would add the charge for all tags. In addition, she said, customer service would suffer dramatically if such an important process is stripped from responsive, local public officials and turned over to a private, for-profit vendor. Maloy said the tax collectors have enjoyed a long and cooperative relationship with DHSMV and trust the department to recognize that improvements to the existing system are preferable to eliminating a system that has served the public well.



Walter Dartland, executive director of the Consumer Federation of the Southeast, said the impacts on the consumer must be foremost in deciding on such a sweeping change. Dartland praised DHSMV and the tax collectors for working in partnership in recent years to make tag and license services more consumer-friendly.



“Sometimes the most important question to ask is not what a proposed change would save, but what it would cost consumers,” Dartland said.  “If taxpayers are losing time, local customer service and accountable oversight, that’s a steep price with no real benefit for consumers.”



Florida Tax Collectors Inc., the elected officials’ organization, commissioned Capital Analytics LLC to evaluate the impact of the DHSMV plan and under the leadership of Coburn, a former state budget director, it cited numerous instances of incorrect assumptions underlying the DHSMV proposal about revenues and the tax collectors’ ability to handle distribution of 15 million tags next year.



“The state has experienced a number of serious setbacks in implementing complex, statewide systems in recent years. If there are serious problems with implementation or ongoing operation, the tax collectors will have already given up much of their capability to step in and deliver these services. A replacement vendor who can pick up immediately is unlikely to exist. Clearly, this scenario is not far-fetched. We see no indication that contingency planning has been considered at all by the department,” the Capital Analytics report says.



Capital Analytics has noted annual savings, estimated by DHSMV at  $123,000 per year, would be offset by some $400,000 in startup costs including development of bid requests, vendor selection and independent contract monitoring. Production of new tags will cost an estimated $31.4 million.



The tax collectors have offered a set of cost-saving recommendations, including: working with the DHSMV Executive Director, partners and stakeholders to look together at the future of motorist services; changing the tag inventory system and reducing the number of inventory locations from 1,300 to 67; realizing a 41 percent reduction of tag inventory by removing the county name from tags; utilizing smart distribution methods to realize toll readability revenue and reduce costs by first distributing the new tags to regions with the highest volume of toll traffic; and working with Electronic Filing System dealers to reduce the 8 percent in waste often cited by DHSMV.



Palm Beach County Tax Collector Anne Gannon said the department failed to cite any savings associated with a switch to a central issuance system. Instead, she said, citizens can expect an erosion of customer service, including a longer wait to receive tags ordered via the Internet.  Currently, those orders are fulfilled locally and can be turned around the same day.



“As elected officials, we tax collectors know that customer service has to be priority number one at all times,” Gannon said. “The people we serve expect to be able to come to our offices for one-on-one assistance with a wide range of concerns, and this proposal will only add confusion, irritation and frustration. It is not a good idea.”



Gannon predicted that customers who have problems with mail or Internet orders under the new system would likely show up at local tax collector offices for help, but the tax collectors will have no record of those transactions and no way to solve problems.



DHSMV recently said it would unhitch the discussion about how the tags are distributed from the proposal to change how they are made. But Maloy said the tax collectors remain unconvinced because the department continues to change its description of its plan and is still calling for centralized distribution of mailed and Internet tags.



“We are concerned that the wholesale privatization and centralization of license tag issuance is still very much an issue in play,” Maloy said.  “Regardless of what is decided about the tags, we are seeking assurance that our existing, customer-friendly system of local fulfillment will remain in place. Tax collectors have risen to every challenge when services have changed before, and we can do it again.”



Florida Tax Collectors, Inc., is the statewide association of the 64 elected and three appointed tax collectors serving local residents throughout Florida, and committed to effectively meeting the needs of citizens by sharing knowledge, experience and best practices to solve challenges faced by the public.