Rural offices issued few licenses but cost little to actually operate

Published 10:02 pm Monday, October 12, 2015

By Kim ChandlerThe Associated Press

CAMDEN (AP) — Parents and teens would show up outside the small building, nestled between a beauty salon and a discount store, on the one day each week that the state examiner came to give driving license and permit tests in Wilcox County.

A sign on the door this week tells people that the office is closed because of budget cuts and staffing issues. People can still get a replacement or renewal license up the street at the county courthouse, but the closest place to take a driving test is in Selma or Montgomery, about an hour away.

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“It’s going to be a burden. A lot of times it was done on their break time so people could get back to work and get their kid back to school. A lot of times people had to borrow a ride for the test, since some people don’t have cars,” said Tonia McMillian, owner of the Best Look Beauty Salon next door to the closed office.

Twenty-eight of Alabama’s 67 counties are in a similar situation, without a local driver’s license office, after the state announced the closure of 31 rural offices that had been staffed one day a week or so with a test examiner.

Instead of taking a half a day off from school or work, people will have to take off one or two days because of long lines in the other counties, said Rep. Kelvin Lawrence, D-Hayneville. “And we’re talking about an impoverished area,” Lawrence said. Wilcox, a rural county of just 11,000 people, is majority African-American and has the highest unemployment and poverty rates in the state. Nearly 40 percent of people live before the federal poverty line.

U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell has sharply criticized the closings. The Democratic congresswoman asked the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate. In 2014, Alabama began requiring voters to present a state-issued photo identification to vote.

The part-time offices did not give many licenses and exams each year compared to the full-time offices, but they also did not cost much to staff, according to numbers provided by ALEA.

The 31 locations in 2014 issued 5,000 learners permits, 3,149 driver’s licenses and gave 10,587 permit exams, according to numbers from ALEA. The Centre office in Cherokee County issued the largest numbers of licenses at 216 and 161 permits and gave 293 permit exams.

The Camden office issued 42 licenses and 145 permits and gave 403 exams. The Greenville office issued 187 licenses and 261 permits and gave 620 exams.

ALEA said it will save travel costs by no longer sending examiners to the offices. The department was on track this year to spend $100,000 on travel to the offices, according to ALEA.

ALEA Secretary Spencer Collier said the reallocation will allow the department to better staff the main offices that handle more transactions.

“The decision to reallocate Driver License Division personnel to staff the ALEA owned, district offices fulltime and discontinue travel to the part-time 31 satellite locations was a business decision based solely on transactions and being severely understaffed. ALEA has 103 vacancies in the Driver License Division, we simply do not have the personnel to staff the locations,” Collier said.

Alabama announced the closure of five small state parks, driver’s licenses offices and several state armories in the fiscal year that began Oct. 1. Lawmakers approved a general fund budget with $82 million in cuts after rejecting Gov. Robert Bentley’s call for larger tax increases throughout three legislative sessions.

The license office closures have prompted the most backlash from lawmakers who have questioned the closures.

Collier said he will seek a supplemental appropriation from lawmakers next year to reopen the offices.

However, Senate Finance and Taxation general Fund Chairman Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, said he did not know where the money would come from.

Orr said he would have preferred to have seen the rural offices cut back, to perhaps once or twice a month, as opposed to eliminated completely.

In Lowndes County, County Commissioner Carnell McAlpine said he sometimes loaned his pickup truck to families without automobiles so their teens can take the driving test. “The parents don’t drive or they don’t have an automobile, because they can’t afford one,” McAlpine said.