published Friday, November 29th, 2013

Driver's licenses solution in works for Hamilton County

NASHVILLE — State officials and area legislators think they're within striking distance of a deal to resume easy reissuing of driver's licenses following complaints about the Department of Safety closing its reinstatement center in Hamilton County.

"Without going into any detail now, we're working with local officials to come up with a solution that I think would be satisfactory to everyone," Safety Commissioner Bill Gibbons said. "And I think we'll be in a position to hopefully announce that in early December. Stay tuned."

The Department of Safety and Homeland Security on Nov. 15 closed its Hamilton County Driver's License Reinstatement Center, one of six across the state, with officials saying not enough people were using the service to warrant the operation.

That upset local legislators and judges, because Hamilton County residents and other Southeast Tennesseans now face two cumbersome, time-consuming choices to restore their driving privileges.

They can travel about 100 miles to Knoxville or 130 miles to Nashville, the two closest centers, to get their licenses reinstated there. Or local residents can pay their reinstatement fees online by credit card or check card, email confirmation to the state and then drive to the two other driver service centers in Hamilton County -- the Bonny Oaks Driver Services Center or Red Bank Driver Services Center -- and get their licenses reissued.

Both choices pose hardships, said state Rep. JoAnne Favors, D-Chattanooga.

"I've had so many of the noncustodial parents with their driver 's licenses revoked, and I've had to run interference for them to help get them back," Favors said.

Those noncustodial parents have had their licenses revoked for not paying child support. Favors said that, in many instances, the noncustodial parent actually was making payments or finally had landed a job and just started making them.

Senate Speaker Pro Tempore Bo Watson, R-Hixson, chairman of the seven-member Hamilton County delegation, said he, Favors, Rep. Mike Carter, R-Ooltewah, and several judges recently met with top Safety Department officials about the problem.

"We gave them [safety officials] some ideas and they were going to look at it and sort of see what is possible," Watson said. "But I think we'll have a remedy that might, by the end, be even better than what we had."

Watson declined to say whether that might involve having the Red Bank and Bonny Oaks centers begin handling reinstatements in addition to their other duties, which include driver testing and issuance of driver licenses and handgun-carry permits.

Greene and Obion counties' centers are full-service offices that also issue and reinstate licenses.

In announcing the close of the dedicated reinstatement center in October, officials said that was a possibility, although they also emphasized that moving reinstatement workers to the two other centers was intended to cut wait times.

The Department of Safety, like all state agencies, is affected by Gov. Bill Haslam's drive for "effective and efficient" operations. For Safety, that has meant cutting the department's notoriously long wait times for people getting licenses.

Through September this year, the then-stand-alone license reinstatement center on Northgate Park Lane in Chattanooga handled 4,426 transactions. That compares to 19,066 at Davidson County's center, while the center in Shelby County had 11,594 reinstatements, according to state figures. Knox County's center had 7,647.

The 4,426 local reinstatements also compares with the 27,828 transactions completed at the Bonny Oaks Driver Services Center and 18,397 transactions completed at the Red Bank Driver Services Center, according to safety department figures.

Chattanooga City Court Judge Russell Bean complained in a letter last month about the situation, saying the state "is leaving the centers in Knoxville, Nashville and Memphis open, but Chattanooga seems to be getting left out. I don't think it's right for the citizens down here."

Bean warned that the decision "is just going to create more people driving without a driver's license. This just exacerbates an already tremendous problem of people driving in our state without insurance."

Contact staff writer Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550.

about Andy Sher...

Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...

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