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Changes to state car insurance laws frustrate some tag office supervisors

mandatory liability

Calhoun County tag clerk Jessica Howle, with a vehicle tag to issue next to a placard on the new Alabama state law on mandatory liability insurance. Photo by Stephen Gross / The Anniston Star

Changes to the state’s mandatory liability insurance have caused some conflict in Cleburne County, according to the probate judge. 

Ryan Robertson, who serves as both the Cleburne County Commission chairman and the county probate judge, said in a commission meeting earlier this week that $200 fees for insurance lapses have left customers of the automobile tag renewal office, which he also manages with a team of clerks, upset with the county. 

But the fees aren’t new — as of January 1, all that’s different is who collects them. 

“A customer comes in to find out they can’t get a tag because there’s a mandatory liability insurance violation and they’re irate with us,” he said Wednesday. “It takes up a lot more time and we become the gate for the state.” 

One-stop tag shop

The fees — charged to reinstate tags marked for suspension due to lapses, totaling $200 for the first lapse, whether it’s a single day or a whole year, and $400 for the second infraction — are a steep cost for many of Robertson’s customers. 

The reasons for the insurance lapses vary, he said, but they can range from human error when switching insurance companies creating gaps in coverage to using an insurance company not recognized by the state, which sometimes happens to people when they move or switch to cheaper, smaller insurance companies. 

The tag offices previously collected some of those fees, according to Mike Gamble, deputy commissioner of the Alabama Department of Revenue, but a bill that passed the Legislature last year moved all collection to the local offices, he said. 

“The counties were always a location you could go to repay your reinstatement fee, but at one point you could also go to the Department,” Gamble said. “Taxpayers would go get information at the county and would end up going to one of the taxpayer service centers throughout the state. Now they can do all reinstatements at the same location.” 

County tag offices get a percentage of the fees for acting as collections, Gamble said. Previously it was 10 percent of the total, but this year it was raised to 15 percent. Some of that goes to county general funds and some goes to the tag office itself, he explained, while the rest goes to the Department of Revenue, the state Comptroller’s Office, a police annuity fund and the state’s general fund. 

“The Department takes its costs off the top; we have people who work with the county offices and maintain the IT systems,” Gamble said. 

VINsurance database

The state enacted its rules penalizing driving a car without insurance in 2011, according to the state Department of Revenue website, which maintains databases of vehicle identification numbers, license plates and insurance information obtained through county tag offices and from insurance companies. 

April Brown, Robertson’s chief clerk, said the state’s Online Insurance Verification System checks every 30 days for active insurance on vehicles with current tags. 

“Because it’s continuously running a check, it’s going to hit some folks,” Brown said. “Where we’re at, in the computer age, it’s a lot easier to check with these insurance companies.” 

According to Barry Robertson, Calhoun County’s license commissioner, the state checked more than 62 million vehicles in 2019, sent out 847,000 insurance lapse notice postcards — replaced with letters this year — and collected $5.7 million in reinstatement fees. The county collected a little over $197,000 in calendar year 2019, he said, and has already collected another $20,000 in January. 

New rules for fewer fees

Barry Robertson said the changes this year are mostly beneficial, even with the increase in work load for tag offices. 

Originally first offenses came with a 30-day registration suspension, and second offenses included a four-month suspension. This year, those suspensions are gone. 

“What was happening was, under the old act, it was placing an undue burden on the taxpayer,” said the license commissioner. “If you had a four-month suspension, we couldn’t collect your $400. You basically had to wait four months and come back.” 

New rules this year allow car owners to afford themselves some protection from undue fees. People planning to store their cars or not drive them for a while can turn their tags in at county tag offices before they drop their insurance coverage. The reclaimed license plate is reported in the state’s database and the vehicle is removed from monthly checks. 

“We had over 100 taxpayers turn in their plates in January, and it’s going to increase,” said Barry Robertson. “There’s no question we’re going to get more of that.” 

People who are going to be charged the fee can also declare that their vehicle has been in storage or parked, turn in their license plate at their local office and have the fee waived once per registration year. 

That only works if the driver hasn’t been involved in a car accident or ticketed for driving without insurance, Barry Robertson said. 

Finally, the “look-back” period for second offenses was shortened from four years to three, making it slightly easier to avoid the bigger fine with a second violation. 

Barry Robertson said he understands the concerns Ryan Robertson, the Cleburne County probate judge, has about the increased workload and some of the anger customers now vent in tag renewal offices. He also seemed more optimistic about managing that challenge. 

“I tell our personnel, ‘People aren’t mad at you, don’t take this personally,’” he said. “‘They’re not mad at you, they’re upset at the system.’” 

Judge Robertson said he has compassion for the people who are frustrated with what they perceive as a county-level issue. 

“It’s an expense if you’ve had this happen to you, but it’s still something we have to carry through and finish and follow the rules,” he said. “It’s tightened up. We just ask that folks be aware and prepared.” 

More information about the state’s mandatory liability insurance laws can be found at www.besuretoinsureal.com

Assistant Metro Editor Ben Nunnally: 256-235-3560. 

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