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Editorial: Expanding Southtowns Auto Bureau doesn’t make sense in our wired world

Since his election as Erie County clerk in 2017, Michael “Mickey” Kearns has made improved customer service a priority, adding Saturday hours to some Auto Bureau offices and reducing wait times for auto dealers and applicants for pistol permits.

However, the clerk’s plan to increase the Southtowns Auto Bureau’s physical footprint by more than 300 percent does not make sense in a world dominated by digital commerce. The problem is not Kearns’, but a backward state policy that needs to be fixed.

The Southtowns Auto Bureau occupies about 2,100 square feet in its office at Erie Community College’s South Campus. Kearns says that’s too small, forcing customers to line up outside. The clerk’s office is seeking proposals for a new site with 9,200 square feet of space.

Having the capacity to handle more transactions with fewer delays would mean more revenue for the county, but moving into a vastly larger facility, and hiring more staff, is an unnecessary expense. The Auto Bureau is not a retail business selling perfume or greeting cards, but brick and mortar is no longer the way of the world. It’s time to fully enter the 21st century.

It’s not Kearns’ fault that the state’s incentives here are askew. County auto offices receive 12.7 percent of the revenue from in-person transactions, such as renewing a driver’s license. When an Erie County resident does the same transaction online, the state returns just 3.25 percent of the revenue to the county, and even then, only after the first $12 million in transactions.

Kearns told The News this week that the number of transactions handled by the county Auto Bureau offices increased by 103 percent in 2018. He said the county received just 1.12 percent of the revenue from all state auto transactions that originated in Erie County.

Making a trip to any Auto Bureau office can be about as much fun as a dental appointment. Individuals are not penalized for choosing the convenience of online transactions, but why should their home county pay a price if they do so? Governments should not be discouraging efficiency in the ways citizens conduct their business.

The state County Clerks Association has been lobbying to have the counties’ share of the money from in-person transactions doubled, to 25 percent. The county offices say their costs are increasing because of federal government’s new Real ID requirements, which require clerks’ offices to scan more documents. Starting in October 2020, all U.S. citizens boarding an airplane will be required to have a driver’s license meeting Real ID standards, which involves verifying Social Security numbers and an original birth certificate. These are similar to the requirements for enhanced driver’s licenses, a separate product that costs more and allows easier crossings by land to Canada and Mexico.

One possibility is to create a flat reimbursement rate between the state DMV and the counties. The rate, at say 8.5 percent, would have to be negotiated through the Legislature. Another option is zero reimbursement, more internet usage and decreased county employment.

In either case, Auto Bureau customers could choose online convenience with a clear conscience, knowing they aren’t short-changing their home county. And citizens who prefer in-person transactions would still have the option.

If such a deal meant a shrinkage of the county Auto Bureau system, that’s what efficiency is supposed to accomplish: giving us only the government we need.

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