The Columbia branch office of the Missouri Department of Revenue is one of 11 that Gov. Matt Blunt plans to shut down and replace with operations that will be run by hand-picked private contractors.
Seventeen people work at the branch office on Vandiver Drive, where residents go to get drivers licenses, to renew license plates and to pay taxes on vehicles. While the governor included the proposal in his budget for fiscal year 2006, the revenue department hopes to implement the changes as soon as late spring or early summer.
No one at the Columbia office would comment on Blunt’s plan.
The vast majority of the 182 revenue offices around the state are already run by private contractors. Jessica Robinson, a spokeswoman for the revenue department, said the 11 government-operated branch offices cost the state $8 million a year.
“The decision to change these fee offices from state run to privately contracted was a business decision,” Robinson said. “The director of revenue, Trish Vincent, made the decision as a cost-saving measure to the state. We were losing money keeping these offices open, and every million counts when funding state programs.”
Robinson said the branch offices in 2002 began charging the same processing fees — on top of the fixed costs of individual transactions — that private contractors have always charged to keep their fee offices afloat.
While Blunt has touted the plan as a way to save money, Rep. Jeff Harris, D-Columbia, House minority leader, said the process for selecting private contractors is unethical. Harris made his concerns official when he filed a complaint with the Missouri Ethics Commission on Wednesday, alleging political patronage in Blunt’s appointment of fee office managers in five Missouri communities.
“The private fee office system is the last bastion of old-time political patronage and political favoritism remaining in the state of Missouri,” Harris said.
Harris has called on Blunt to instead convert his proposed revenue office cuts into a windfall for public schools.
“I am always looking for new ways to add money to public schools,” Harris said in a Feb. 7 news release. “I encourage the governor to stop making these appointments and support my proposal to assign fee offices through a competitive bidding process. This way, the fees collected from taxpayers who are purchasing permits or renewing their driver’s licenses will be directed into the classrooms of their public schools.”
Rep. Wayne Henke, D-Troy, has filed a bill that would end the practice of hand-picking fee-office operators and require the contracts be given to school districts, to coalitions of school districts or to private individuals who would funnel the proceeds of their operations to schools.
Blunt spokesman Spence Jackson called the accusations from Harris and others “another hollow partisan attack.”
“It is merely today’s installment of the Democratic Party leadership’s policy of mindless and automatic negative opposition,” Jackson said.
Under Blunt’s proposal, the computers and equipment used by the branch offices targeted for closure would either be used by incoming contractors or kept by the revenue department for other uses. Department administrators are trying to remain optimistic about the future of employees who stand to lose their jobs.
“The employees currently working at the branch offices are doing a great job,” Robinson. “It is the department’s hope that we will be able to work with the incoming contract agents to rehire the state’s experienced employees because they have already demonstrated that they are fully capable of handling the job.”
Robinson said there should be no concern about quality control under private contractors. “There are already 171 experienced privately run fee offices that are running smoothly throughout the state,” she said.
Robinson said the governor is implementing a “fee agent’s plan for success” that will ensure fee offices are operated efficiently. Jackson said the governor will base selection of fee-office managers on who appears most capable of implementing the plan and providing good customer service.
The plan for success requires agents to hold regular office hours and in some instances extended office hours. It also requires strict tracking of inventory, improved cash management and revenue reporting, and better employee training. Those who fail to meet the standards face sanctions.
Missouri has 10 other branch revenue offices: three each in Kansas City and St. Louis and one each in Joplin, Springfield, St. Joseph and Jefferson City. The Columbia office recently relocated to Vandiver Drive after operating for several years in an office building on Buttonwood Drive.