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Tax collector to take on driver’s license duties

MANATEE — Come April 1, the Manatee County Tax Collector’s office will take over all the duties of the state driver’s license office.

The Florida Legislature decided during its past session not to fund the Bradenton office of the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles at DeSoto Junction shopping center, which would have meant parents would have had to drag their teenagers to Sarasota, Hillsborough, Pinellas, DeSoto or Hardee counties to get their learner’s permit or take a driver’s test.

The closing was scheduled for June 30, but Ken Burton, the county tax collector, worked out a deal with the state to postpone that until April 1, giving his staff time to prepare for the turnover.

“We had in our strategic plan to take it over in the future,” Burton said. “It just came a little quicker than we planned.”

The state had scheduled to close the Bradenton office in 2012, but with legislators cutting funding, officials called Burton in March to say it would be shut down this month.

“All those people would have converged on our office, which is less than a mile down the road,” Burton said.

The tax collector’s office currently provides some driver’s license services, such as renewals and replacements. They process almost 20,000 transactions a year.

But in April, along with about 26,600 of those same transactions that the state office now performs, the county tax collector’s office will have to provide additional services, such as conducting driving tests, issuing learner’s permits and processing suspended licenses. Those additional services amount to about 20,000 more transactions for Burton’s office to do.

“We hired four people this week,” Burton said last week. “We’re getting them trained and ready to go.”

The tax collector presented his plan for taking over the state license duties to the Manatee County Commission on Thursday.

Because the $1 million needed to implement the plan will come from the approximate $5 million in unused fees the tax collector returns to the county each year, commissioners will have to find additional areas in the budget to trim.

“This was something we didn’t plan on,” said commission Chairwoman Donna Hayes.

“Now we’ll have to readjust the budget.”

Hayes said she expected every department to tighten their belts.

“The state put us in an awkward position,” she said. “We’re in the position of providing an essential service.”

Ann Howard, spokeswoman for the state Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicle, said the closing of local driver’s license offices has been an ongoing effort over the years.

“The transition of driver’s licences services from the state to county tax collectors will benefit the taxpayers,” Howard said. “It’s the most effective way to provide complete service, one-stop shopping.”

She said the projected cost of operating the state driver’s license office in Bradenton for fiscal year 2011-12 was $225,000.

Burton said his expenses of about $1 million for the first year were mostly one-time start-up costs.

The renovation of the DeSoto office, next to DeSoto Square mall, will cost about $675,000.

The Palmetto office also will be relocated, but the renovation costs of between $200,000-$300,000 will be spread out over the years in a monthly lease payment.

Burton, who was still crunching numbers for his budget, said the costs to the county may be spread over two years, which would soften the impact.