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Records reveal Mo. fee hike set to pay for computer system

Wednesday, May 21, 2008 | 6:11 p.m. CDT; updated 2:09 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY — A sharp fee increase for state vehicle and driver’s license records appears to have been set to pay for the cost of a new computer system — a justification not allowed under Missouri’s open-records law.

The Missouri Department of Revenue this month began charging $7 each for license records — up significantly from its previous $1.25 charge. The agency also eliminated a discount to businesses that previously could buy bulk quantities of records for less than a penny each.

Missouri’s open-records law limits fees for computerized public records to the costs of the copies and the staff time needed to retrieve and duplicate them.

But documents provided to The Associated Press suggest the Department of Revenue picked the $7 fee to cover the cost of a new computer database for the records. The equipment and contracted maintenance of the sought-after system is projected to cost nearly $70 million by 2017, according to department records.

“The statute is very specific about what they are allowed to charge for — and equipment is not one of the factors,” said Jean Maneke, a Kansas City attorney who specializes in public records law.

The AP received about 200 pages of materials from the department in response to a Sunshine Law request for documents justifying how the department arrived at its new rate. Department officials, however, refused to provide any explanation of the charts, spreadsheets and correspondence included in the packet.

Department spokesman David Griffith cited a lawsuit by four businesses that regularly buy the records to track vehicle histories and traffic violations and in turn sell that information to used car dealers, consumers, insurance companies and other entities.

That lawsuit contends the new $7 fee violates Missouri’s Sunshine Law, and a hearing on a preliminary injunction request is set for May 29. Attorneys involved in that lawsuit also received the documents provided to the AP.

Those documents include numerous calculations about how much money would be generated for the department under various fee-increase options.

For example, an undated spreadsheet prepared by the fiscal manager for the department’s Customer Services Division projects that a fee of $7.09 per record would cover the one-time cost and annual maintenance for the new system.

Another document from the same manager, dated Dec. 6, shows several options crossed out with a rectangle drawn around a computer configuration option that would result in a fee of $6.90 to cover one-time costs and annual maintenance.

Department Director Omar Davis has previously acknowledged the fee increase would pay for the equipment. When outraged legislators voted last week to cap the agency’s bulk-purchase fee at 0.5 cents per record, Davis said the department probably would have to cancel its contract for the new system.

One of the attorneys suing the department said the documents show the fee increase was not set according to the Sunshine Law.

“My impression is that it does not justify the drastic increase in fees, that should be simply the cost of an employee getting an electronic copy generated and put on some type of a CD or other electronic media form, and that’s it,” said attorney Alex Bartlett, who represents Experian Information Solutions Inc.

Fliers prepared by the department list the basic fee as $7, plus a $2 processing fee when purchasing the records from the state’s contractor-run license offices.

The flier states: “The Department of Revenue has determined this price more accurately reflects its costs and is comparable to fees charged by other states for driver records.”

But a department document dated Dec. 21, 2006, indicates that an employee can process a record request in 3.5 minutes, which when divided by the employee’s hourly wage, results in a record retrieval cost of 67 cents. The department also can charge 10 cents per page for a copy of the records, according to the Sunshine Law.

The 2006 document also adds numerous other things into the cost of each record sale, including prorated portions of the salaries for various department supervisors, attorneys, fiscal staff and human resources employees.

When factoring in those other personnel, the cost for each driver’s license record sale would equal $7.17 and $11.56 for each motor vehicle record sale, the document states. When adding prorated expenses for staff travel, training and supplies, such as license plates, the cost for each driver’s license record sale would be $13.40, and $21.69 for each motor vehicle record sale, the document states.

Maneke, who reviewed the document at the AP’s request, said such costs cannot be passed on to the public seeking copies of the records.

“That is ridiculous to be building that into this; it is illegal under state law,” said Maneke, later adding: “This kind of document is the kind of thing that a lawyer bringing a Sunshine Law suit would find very damning in terms of evidence against the Department of Revenue.”

Griffith defended the department’s cost estimates.

“I think the information that is in there is accurate,” he said. “I don’t think there’s anything that’s been padded.”


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