Fee office in Columbia to transfer to local owner

Thursday, April 28, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 12:08 p.m. CDT, Friday, July 18, 2008

The state-owned Columbia branch office of the Missouri Department of Revenue will shift to the private ownership of Columbia businessman Scott Atkins on Monday.

Atkins owns Columbia-based Tom Atkins Investments, which is named for his father. Both men are also involved in a series of enterprises ranging from investment banking to real estate development. Gov. Matt Blunt granted Scott Atkins a contract to operate the fee office as part of a larger promise he made during his State of the State Address to eliminate the revenue department’s 11 branch offices around the state.

Scott Atkins could not be reached for comment.

The state’s 171 privately run fee offices collect a state-mandated fee for driver’s license renewal, tax payments and the processing of motor vehicle titles and registrations. The offices can charge a processing fee ranging from $2.50 to $7 per transaction.

The revenue office in Columbia will remain at 1500 Vandiver Drive. It is the only one in Boone County. Nevertheless, Department of Revenue spokeswoman Maura Browning said the service will improve under private operation because of competition.

“Because, instead of being state offices they’ll become privately run, they have a real incentive to provide good service,” she said. “Just because you live in Columbia doesn’t mean you can only go to the office in Columbia.”

Scott Atkins donated $1,200 — the maximum amount permissible under state law — to Gov. Matt Blunt’s gubernatorial campaign, according to records at the Missouri Ethics Commission. Tom Atkins donated an additional $600. Scott Atkins also donated $1,000 to then-Gov. Bob Holden in 2003.

Sen. Chuck Graham, D-Columbia, criticized the contract, saying it makes little sense to deprive the state of earnings from a profitable fee office.

“I don’t think it makes good sense to close a well-operated state facility to create another political patronage job,” he said.

Scott Atkins will be responsible for building, equipment and employee costs but will keep all the processing fees his office collects. With some of the state’s busiest offices generating more than $300,000 per year in such fees, the sale of such contracts are generally viewed as a tool that governors can use to reward friends.

Browning, however, said the change to private fee offices became necessary with approval of Amendment 3 last November. Because the amendment requires that all fuel and automotive taxes and fees be used for highway projects, Browning said, the state would lose money if it continued to operate fee offices.

Blunt has come under fire from Democrats in the General Assembly throughout the session over the many fee offices he has contracted out. Contracts have been awarded to staffers in the office of Republican U.S. Rep. Sam Graves, to two relatives of U.S. Attorney Todd Graves and to the son of state Sen. David Klindt, R-Bethany. The complaint against Sam Graves’ staffers was dismissed by the Ethics Commission on Wednesday, according to an Associated Press report.

House Speaker Rod Jetton, R-Marble Hill, said private enterprise is often more cost-effective than state government. He said the fact that appointees could make embarrassing mistakes makes governors accountable for their choices.

Earlier in the session, Graham filed a bill that would require Senate confirmation of the recipients of fee-office contracts. Although it’s a far more informal process than that required of White House political appointees , the governor in Missouri must win state Senate confirmation of many of his appointees.

“It would seem to me that the governor would want to clear these people with the senators who know these people better than he does,” Graham said.

The revenue department said the other state-run offices will be converted to private operations within the next two months.

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