TALLAHASSEE — County tax collectors and two other license plate groups filed formal protests Monday accusing Florida's Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles of overstepping its authority with plans to outsource parts of its license plate operation.
The groups also accuse the department of excluding small businesses and discouraging competition as it moves forward with plans for a new license plate design produced by private businesses and distributed through online orders.
In Florida, prisoners manufacture the tags and tax collectors distribute them.
The two other groups that have filed protests are Avery Dennison, a labeling and packaging company, and PRIDE, a St. Petersburg-based prison-industries company that uses inmate labor to make tags. The proposed change could drive the nonprofit out of business.
State officials are required to meet with the three groups within the next week to keep the dispute out of administrative courts, said Jon Kosberg, the department's chief of purchasing and contracts.
If the state proceeds with outsourcing, it will dispense an estimated $31.4 million in contracts in two years.
"The intention is not to harm anybody. It's to see what's out there and see if we can bring the best value to the state of Florida and the citizens," Kosberg said, adding that the department is only gathering information and is a long way from striking deals with private vendors. Six companies have expressed interest in the department's "invitation to negotiate," a document that outlines expectations for potential business partners.
Wilbur Brewton, a lobbyist for PRIDE, says its 33-page protest speaks for itself.
Florida wants vendors to produce 16 million plates in the first year, a possibility for only the largest companies, the report says. And it insists the new tags be flat. PRIDE and other groups only have the technology to produce the traditional, raised tags.
State officials insist that flat tags are more legible for cameras at red lights and toll booths, but critics say that's not the case.
Florida's push to privatize hit its first major road block during an October Cabinet meeting, when license plate chief Julie Jones planned to pitch a redesign of Florida's iconic green and white license tag as she announced a revamp of the department's manufacturing and distribution methods.
Tax collectors had lobbied lawmakers and fiercely protested the change, prompting state officials to delay.
At that time, Attorney General Pam Bondi said the state was "not ready" to move forward on privatizing its tags, a position she holds even now.
"We are far from having the adequate information necessary to consider such a change," she said Monday.
The snags won't affect the state's proposed makeover for its tags, said Kirsten Olsen-Doolan, spokeswoman for the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.
In-house designers have created four shiny orange and green tags, and Floridians are invited to vote on their favorite at vote4floridatag.com. The most popular selection will be available by 2014, Olsen-Doolan said.