Government & Politics

Getting a new Kansas license plate? To avoid sticker shock, keep track of that decal

For the first time in about a decade, Kansas license plates are getting a makeover, beginning Aug. 1.

And Johnson County officials worry there may be some confusion. They point out that vehicle owners needing a new plate will have to be more intentional about keeping track of their registration stickers while they wait for their new plates to arrive.

That's because Kansas is adopting a new digital production process, which will change how the license plates are distributed.

In the past, embossed plates were manufactured in bulk and distributed in large numbers to county motor vehicle offices. People purchasing a new car or otherwise needing a new license plate would get that plate along with the registration sticker at the same time at the DMV.

But the old manufacturing process required overproduction to make sure the offices had extra plates, leading to about $1 million in extra inventory that was never sold, said Debra Wiley, project manager for Kansas' new license plate project.

As of Aug. 1, license plates will be created using a digital printer that prints letters and numbers on a background, then bonds the background material to the flat metal plate. This print-on-demand process produces a license plate that will be mailed from the manufacturing site in Wichita to the owner's address.

"A plate will not be made until we know it's been assigned to a vehicle," Wiley explained. More than 10 states — including Oklahoma, Nebraska, Texas, Indiana and Michigan — have adopted this process, which is seen as more efficient and cost-effective. It eliminates the wasted extra inventory from the old manufacturing process.

Officials emphasize that not everyone needs a new license plate. It applies to people who register a new vehicle without transferring a plate or to those who change from a standard to specialty or personalized plate or when a license plate is lost, stolen or damaged.

Wiley estimated the state has issued about 480,000 new plates annually for the past few years.

Johnson County officials support the new manufacturing process and agree it's a more technologically advanced approach.

But they quibble with one aspect of the process: People still must get their vehicle registration stickers at two county treasurer motor vehicle offices, at 6000 Lamar Ave. in Mission or 782 N. Ridgeview Road in Olathe. So they'll have to hang on to those stickers while they wait for the license plates to arrive, within 10 days after they are ordered.

"In Johnson County, we currently reprint over 16,000 registration stickers annually," Johnson County Commission Chairman Ed Eilert wrote in a recent letter to the Kansas Department of Revenue, which handles the license plate program. Eilert was referring to the stickers that the county already has to reprint because they're lost, stolen or misapplied by the vehicle owners.

"This workload and cost will continue to increase as customers lose or misapply their registration decal while waiting for their plate to arrive in the mail," Eilert wrote. "Mailing plates without registration decals may also increase customer concerns and frustration with the process. It is our understanding that there are several options for including registration stickers with plates, and we are happy to work with you and your team to find a solution that is mutually agreeable."

Johnson County Treasurer Thomas Franzen said he has voiced his concerns to the Kansas Department of Revenue.

He said he would have preferred that the plate design included the decal on the plate itself. Another option, he said, would be to have the stickers and plates both mailed to the motorist in the same envelope, as is done in some states that already have digital license plates.

"To me, that would've made more sense," he said.

Wiley agreed that a few counties have echoed those concerns but said there are other considerations.

"Some think that by printing the decal on the plate, if that plate is somehow stolen or lost, when the person puts it on a vehicle, then it's a valid plate," she said. "By separating the decal, we're increasing the security of the plate."

She said Johnson County's concerns surfaced late in the planning process and it's too late to change the approach this close to the Aug. 1 start date. But she said the suggestions are being reviewed and seriously considered.

"We really do want to make things more convenient for the customer," she said. "We're not saying we're never going to do it. We just want to take some time to thoroughly explore that."