TALLAHASSEE — County tax collectors in Florida are fighting a proposal by Gov. Rick Scott's highway safety chief to hire a private vendor to distribute millions of new license plates across the state.
The tax collectors warn that if tag sales are outsourced, costs will go up and the quality of customer service will go down.
Tax collectors, who are elected county by county, now distribute most tags to motorists, who can order them online, by mail, or in person.
The state plans a major redesign of the Florida license tag in the next few months, and Scott and the Cabinet will vote next Tuesday whether to pursue the redesign.
State highway safety chief Julie Jones says she can save money by hiring an outside company to handle online and mail sales. She said Wednesday she plans to seek tax collectors' input on a formal invitation to vendors, to be made public in early 2013.
But tax collectors pride themselves on customer service and say it would be a mistake for the state to outsource the work to a private company.
"There really is no evidence that it will save our customers money or that it will increase efficiency," said Palm Beach County Tax Collector Anne Gannon. "I think it's the opposite."
Gannon said the current tag sales system works well. She and others expressed concerns that tax collectors would still get angry phone calls from motorists every time the vendor, presumably based in a faraway city, makes a mistake.
"It is all about customer service," said Pinellas County Tax Collector Diane Nelson, one of a dozen tax collectors who attended a Tallahassee news conference to protest the state's plan.
Nelson said the state should instead adopt tax collectors' cost-saving ideas, such as eliminating the names of counties from tags so they can be shipped across county lines.
Jones, who reports to Scott and the three Cabinet members, said she's "dismayed" by the intensity of the tax collectors' criticism. She said no decision has been made on whether to outsource tag sales and that she will keep seeking tax collectors' advice.
"I'm very disappointed that the tax collectors are not willing to innovate to create efficiencies," Jones said. "They just want to say 'No' and not work with me."
The highway safety chief has said she's under pressure by the governor's office to save money to create more revenue for Scott's priority, public schools.
Jones' agency was concerned enough about the tax collectors' opposition that the state sent a videographer to record the tax collectors' news conference. Jones said she wanted to be prepared to field questions about the tax collectors' position.
Hillsborough Tax Collector Doug Belden not only opposes a new distribution system but says redesigning the tag is a waste of money.
"I think it's wrong," Belden said. "There needs to be a lot more study done."
Jones said that PRIDE, the nonprofit prison labor firm that now makes Florida license tags, charges the state 5 cents a tag to ship tags to tax collectors. Hiring a private vendor would eliminate that fee, she said.
The tag redesign is needed, Jones says, because Florida's current tags with their raised letters are difficult to read by automated cameras at toll booths and red-light intersections. A state study said illegible tags on Florida's Turnpike costs the state $4 million a year in lost revenue.
In her preliminary budget proposal, she is asking for $23.6 million more next year to reissue 8.2 million license tags.
Steve Bousquet can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.