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Keep Florida's license plate distribution the job of tax collectors, not private vendors

The way we Floridians get license plates for our cars seems to be working just fine, thank you, and yes, we are talking about customer service in government here.

Local tax collectors handle the job. Some even get compliments for speed and efficiency. Some have won awards!

Clearly, we need a change.

State officials (motto: No Job Left Unprivatized) recently sprung a plan for a redesigned license tag with what they say would be easier-to-read flat numbers and letters to replace the current raised ones. The job of distributing the tags could be outsourced to a private company — all in the name of making money for Gov. Rick Scott's newest and dearest cause, schools, and his attempt to win the hearts of those education-types he dissed early on.

Julie Jones, executive director of the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, wants $31 million to replace our tags with ones more easily read by cops and cameras. On balance, she says, the changes won't cost us.

Some aforementioned tax collectors beg to differ.

Hillsborough's Doug Belden and Pinellas' Diane Nelson, among others, believe that this can't help but cost taxpayers, and that the efficiency customers have come to know will suffer in private hands. ("People," as Nelson put it, "are not widgets.") The two have bona fides here: Belden's office has won the Governor's Sterling Award for high standards and customer service. Nelson has been in the tax collector's office for 43 years and became the boss in 2001.

The best thing about an elected official is the "elected" part. Bad service? Bureaucratic nightmare? Your vote says stay or go. But when a private, for-profit company runs things, the incentive to please can evaporate.

And are flat plates really better? Nelson, who sat on the plate redesign committee, says there are good ideas for improvement, like using a more readable font and eliminating county names. Belden has gathered cases that question the flat plate's superiority.

Bottom line: More study and more consideration are needed, and not a ramming through of an idea. If just for the public trust.

Interesting note: A public records request by Belden showed Jones' office had been talking to the corporate giant 3M about the new plates, sparking questions about a potential paving of the way. Jones has denied anything "nefarious."

The plan could also take the job of making plates away from PRIDE, the St. Petersburg-based nonprofit company that has had prison inmates manufacturing them for decades. PRIDE, which gets no government funding, puts inmates to work and trains them for jobs in the real world.

Currently PRIDE doesn't have equipment to make flat tags — hello, private vendor? But chief administrative officer Dee Kiminki says it would get it if necessary. To PRIDE, the job is important.

Why mess with success? Why not bring in tax collectors who have been doing a pretty good job of things, as well as customers who rely on them, and get their feedback on how to make things better from the start?

The blowback was enough for Jones to delay things, but the plan is still very much alive.

So a question, while everyone takes a breath:

If it ain't broke, don't you think there must be interesting reasons for trying to fix it?

Keep Florida's license plate distribution the job of tax collectors, not private vendors 10/30/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 30, 2012 10:18pm]

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