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December 27, 2014

With Trooper shortage, state officials plan to 'civilianize' drivers license offices

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Posted: Monday, August 11, 2014 8:17 pm | Updated: 8:25 pm, Mon Aug 11, 2014.

MONTGOMERY —  Facing a shortage of state troopers and long lines at drivers license offices, Alabama officials plan to revamp the system for getting a driver's license in the state, Law Enforcement Secretary Spencer Collier said Monday.

"Driver's license is absolutely the worst business model I've ever seen," Collier said. "We lose money making driver's licenses… Every license we produce, the state's losing $3."

Collier made the remarks at a regular meeting of the Joint Legislative Committee on Homeland Security Oversight, which was set up to oversee the state's Department of Homeland Security. Collier was head of that department before lawmakers voted to combine all the state's law enforcement arms into a single Alabama Law Enforcement Agency, a money-saving move.

That transition is expected to be complete by 2015, but Collier said Monday that he doubts one of the biggest problem areas —  the driver's license office —  can be reformed by Jan. 1.

Collier described the driver's license offices as a "paramilitary" organization, with a uniformed officer of the Alabama State Troopers in each office. He said he wanted to "civilianize" those offices, and get the troopers out on the road.

"We currently have 67 arresting officers in these offices, when we have only 280 on patrol," he said. Because of cost of state benefits for sworn officers, Collier said, civilian employees cost less.

Cost isn’t the only problem with the system, committee members said. Rep. Paul DeMarco, R-Homewood, said he has heard from constituents who've waited as long as four hours to get a license. Other committee members said they too routinely hear requests to reform the process.

"We have a real problem in Guntersville," said Sen. Clay Scofield, R-Arab, a committee member. "Four hours would be generous."

Law Enforcement Agency spokeswoman Ann Morris said the agency is already testing automated kiosks where people can get their licenses renewed. Testing for people getting their first license would be harder to streamline, she said.

Long lines at driver's license offices don't seem to be a problem in every county. Committee member Sen. Marc Keahy, D-Grove Hill, said he'd heard few complaints from his district, which covers Mobile, Baldwin and other southwestern counties. Members of the staff at the state trooper post in Jacksonville declined comment on the issue, but did say there was no waiting line for licenses when The Star contacted them Monday afternoon.

Keahey said both problems —  the trooper shortage and the wait for a license —  were a result of the Republican majority's cuts to state personnel over the past four years.

"They always think fewer public employees is better," he said. "The right wing wants us to have no employees."

Collier said funding for state troopers has shrunk over recent years. He also defended the state's use of another shrinking pool of money —  the grants the state receives from the federal Department of Homeland Security.

A federal audit, released earlier this year, took state officials to task for not sharing 80 percent of its Homeland Security money with local governments as required by law.

Collier said the state spent the money —  $3.7 million this year, down from more than $30 million annually in the years immediately after 2001 —  to help the state build a system of interoperable radios that would help agencies talk to each other in a major disaster.

"Regardless of what you may have read about individual agencies not getting money, the object is a strategic approach to benefit the whole state of Alabama," he said.

Collier said his goal was to get 100 additional state troopers out on patrol by January, largely by pulling troopers out of driver's license offices.

Lawmakers urged him to get input from constituents as he made changes to those offices. Collier said complaints are already coming in regularly.

"I get quite a lot of input from citizens," he said.

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