DMV rage: Year after fee hikes, Jeffco budgeting $200,000 per annum for private security

It's been more than a year since the initial bedlam over increased vehicle registration fees prompted some counties to pay off-duty police to keep angry citizens from lashing out at Motor Vehicle personnel. But Jefferson County is still spending a good chunk of the extra revenue to post private security officers at its hubs.

While some of the dust has settled around the $25 to $100 in late registration fees brought in last year -- on top of yearly hikes in standard fees -- some motorists still aren't playing nice.

"Most of our cases have to do with verbal threats," says Pam Anderson, Jefferson County Clerk and Recorder. "There are still incidents with tension because of the increases."

And while they may be just the kinds of outbursts the average driver contemplates after taking a number at the DMV, the county takes the incidents seriously.

The County Clerk's office now budgets $200,000 to afford private security officers stationed at three of its five locations, in Arvada, Lakewood and southeast Jefferson County. The two other offices without security are already near a police substation or court house, where security isn't needed, Anderson said.

Count that cost against the nearly $246,000 the Jefferson County Clerk's office brought in from the beginning of the year to May 31, and the hikes should still bring in a profit. "Our collections on late fees will exceed our security costs for now," Anderson says.

But Anderson notes that she suspects this year could mark the beginning of a downward trend in the new revenue stream. The rates of fines have decreased this year in Jefferson County as compared to rates in 2009; they're down from about 6,400 late fees per month last year to this year's average of about 4,900.

Gov. Bill Ritter signed the fee hikes -- coined FASTER -- into law in March 2009, increasing fees over three years to fill coffers for state transportation projects. The first $10 of those fees go to the counties, which must deal with motorists who might not have expected to fork out so much.

"The clerks are just front-line people," says Mark Couch, spokesperson for Department of Revenue, the state branch that oversees Motor Vehicle. "They're not the ones setting up policy. The angry people should be directing their anger at the people who set the policy."

Prior to FASTER, Jefferson County was one of few counties that didn't assess optional late fees -- an option the new state law took away.

"We sort of went from zero to sixty, or zero to a hundred dollars, depending on how many people were late," Anderson notes.

A good chunk of the revenue came from the "8 to 10 percent" of motorists who passed the thirty-day grace period for late registration, or from owners of lightweight trailers, who discovered that late fees amounted to more than the registration itself.

Some of those issues should be alleviated after changes to the law; legislators passed narrow fee exemptions for acts of God, furlough or medical hardship. But Anderson says she's still waiting for direction from the state on how to initiate the changes.

"We've had customers coming in saying, 'I know you can waive my late fee,'" she reveals. "That's not quite true yet."

Anderson says she expects angry complaints to drop -- not because people are getting nicer or the DMV is becoming more fun to visit, but because people are being more vigilant to avoid the hefty fees.

"It does change behavior over time," she asserts.

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J. David McSwane
Contact: J. David McSwane