JoCo driver’s license offices are failing Kansans. It may be time to privatize them

We recently received an email from a customer at the Kansas driver’s license office in Mission.

The email included photographs of the restroom: dirty floors, a chipped toilet, a small folding table tucked in the corner.

The customer called the restroom’s condition “embarrassing.” We decided to take a look for ourselves.

It was as bad as the pictures suggested. Three rolls of toilet paper were piled on the table, at some distance from the toilet itself. The floor was still dirty. It seemed unsanitary and uncomfortable.

If a bad restroom were the only problem at the Mission driver’s license office, we would be concerned but not overwrought. Cleaning and improving a restroom is a simple task — in fact, this week a state spokeswoman said a new cleaning service has been hired for the facility. She apologized for the condition of the restroom.

But the facility’s sad status reflects a broader problem with services for residents who need a driver’s license. In Johnson County, customers must wait too long, in uncomfortable circumstances, to obtain or renew a license.

Office hours are inconvenient. More locations are needed. Workers at the facilities do their best, but there aren’t enough employees to deal with demand.

It’s unacceptable. And tinkering with the machinery hasn’t helped.

Kansas should begin the process of seeking competitive bids from private companies who want to run driver’s license offices in the state’s biggest counties.

Under such a plan, private firms would be responsible for maintenance, speed, comfort, and convenience at heavily-used offices. Private bidders would be required to reach benchmarks for performance, and suffer financial penalties for falling short.

In exchange, the private operators would be allowed to charge a small transaction fee. The fee would pay the cost of running the office, plus provide a profit to the private operator.

Missouri has privatized “contract licensing” offices, where residents can obtain a license, title a vehicle, or obtain license plates. Customer reviews are generally good, despite occasional grumbling from operators and citizens.

The Missouri offices were once controversial, because they can be lucrative. They became political patronage plums, particularly in heavily-populated counties.

The problem was largely fixed by making the process more transparent. Kansas can follow that model by establishing a formal open bid process for driver’s license offices, then requiring annual audits of performance and revenue. If office operators fail to perform, they can be replaced.

Workers in privatized license offices are not state employees. That can pose problems if those workers are underpaid. Kansas should design a system that establishes a floor for license office worker compensation.

We usually are not in favor of privatizing public services. Jails and prisons, for example, should be public institutions. Tax assessment and collection should be conducted by public employees. Parks should be publicly run.

But providing driver’s licenses is a service — one of the few state services that almost everyone must use. Customer convenience is a top priority in private service industries. Sadly, it may be less so when the state is running the show.

We know this: Kansans should not have to stand in long lines to get a driver’s license. They should wait in well-lit, comfortable rooms. Service should be efficient and accurate.

And they should be able to use clean, well-equipped restrooms. That isn’t always the case today.

Johnson Countians likely would be willing to pay a little extra for that convenience. Kansas should figure out a way to provide it.

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