Area license offices welcome competitive bidding system

Friday, January 16, 2009

For the first time in Missouri, selections of who will operate state license offices will be based on competitive bidding and not purely political considerations.

And the operators of area offices, which include many appointees of former governor Matt Blunt, said they welcome the change and most said they will take the opportunity to try to keep their contracts.

Gov. Jay Nixon, who took office Monday, is building on a policy started by Blunt and offering the potentially lucrative contracts to operate the offices to the person, company or not-for-profit group making the best offer. Blunt started the competitive bidding process after complaints about the political nature of his selections and the use of subcontractors to actually operate the offices.

But Nixon's move is the first time the entire set of 183 license offices around the state will be awarded by a bidding process. In the past, the offices where Missourians renew their car tags, obtain driver's licenses and pay sales tax on vehicle purchases were handed out as political plums to supporters of the governor or his party.

"This action signals a new way in which essential government services will be provided," Nixon said in a news release announcing the first six offices that will be put up for bids.

The license offices, commonly called fee offices, make money by charging a transaction fee in addition to the charges imposed by the state. The most lucrative offices in the state can generate $500,000 a year or more in fees, but offices in Southeast Missouri earn substantially less.

The busiest office is the Cape Girardeau office on Spanish Street. Operated by the Southeast Missouri State University Foundation, the office recorded more than 69,000 transactions in the year ending June 30.

A decision on whether to bid on continuing the foundation's contract will be made today at a committee meeting of the foundation's board, said Anne Hayes, spokeswoman for the university.

Bids will be evaluated on a point system that emphasizes customer service and efficiency. Bidders can earn points if they agree to return some of the fees to the state. While that won't be a deciding factor, it will be an important consideration, said Ted Farnen, spokesman for the Missouri Department of Revenue.

The department will issue a list every week of the offices open for a bid, Farnen said. Exactly how many offices will be offered each week and which offices will be offered is still to be determined, but larger offices will generally be offered earlier in the process.

"Offices that receive no bids will either be rebid or a determination will be made if the office is worth keeping open," Farnen said. "The ultimate goal is to obviously have each office operating in an efficient manner."

Lawyer Gerri Jones has been the contractor at the Jackson license office since 2005. He said Thursday he intends to bid on that office and perhaps more. Jones, the son of county Presiding Commissioner Gerald Jones, said he won the office in part because of his long-term support for Blunt.

He praised Nixon's move to give him an opportunity to keep the office. "I think this is a good thing that Gov. Nixon is doing because it makes it more transparent."

The Perryville office is operated by Karen Naeger, wife of former state representative and Perry County Associate Commissioner Pat Naeger. They intend to bid to keep the office, which is next to the family businesses of HealthCare Pharmacy and Pit Stop Cafe and helps bring business to both, Pat Naeger said.

He, too, praised Nixon for opening up the process. Politics has little to do with how the office is operated, Naeger said.

"Our reputation is on the line," he said. "We are lifelong residents, and we care about how this service is provided."

At the Marble Hill license office, Richard VanGennip said he was chosen after the county Republican Central Committee asked him to take the job. He, too, will bid for another four years as operator and said the new system suits him.

"It is a little bit of extra income," he said. "Not a lot, but a little bit."

Dee Cookson, who operates the Chaffee license office, said she will encourage the longtime office manager, Tanya Sadler, and the other employee, Dena Ernst, to bid for the contract. "Actually, for two people it will be profitable," she said. "It is not as profitable for three people."

All the operators said it would be hard to give any more to the state and that they hope they are chosen based on experience.

"I think doing it on merit is the best way to do it," Cookson said.

rkeller@semissourian.com

388-3642

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