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Going through registration process

Jeffrey Yin, of Maryland Heights, waits in line to renew his plates at the Central West End Driver License and Vehicle Registration Office at 3917 Lindell Boulevard in St. Louis on Monday, March 25, 2019. To renew license plates in Missouri, safety and emissions tests often are required, as is showing proof of insurance and a paid personal property tax receipt as well as paying registration and processing fees. Photo by Cristina M. Fletes, cfletes@post-dispatch.com.

JEFFERSON CITY — Contractors who run license offices in small towns across Missouri cheered when lawmakers and Gov. Mike Parson signed off on the first fee increase in two decades earlier this summer.

The higher fees, they said, would help offset rising costs for materials and less support from the state Department of Revenue, allowing them to make ends meet as they distribute driver’s licenses and license plates.

But, in communities where offices closed because contractors were losing money, there doesn’t appear to be any move by the state to restore services to residents.

“We are not planning to open any license offices as a result of the fee increase itself,” Department of Revenue spokeswoman Anne Marie Moy told the Post-Dispatch on Monday.

According to documents supplied by the governor’s office, 14 offices across the state have been shuttered since 2005. Although not all of the closures can be attributed to the stagnant rates, most occurred in small towns where higher costs and lower foot traffic left license office contractors scrambling to stay afloat.

In 2018, for example, the license office in Willow Springs, a town of about 2,100 in Howell County, closed down.

“It really has been a problem for us, especially for the elderly,” said City Administrator Beverly Hicks.

Now, residents of the southern Missouri community must make a 40- to 50-mile round trip to Mountain View, West Plains or Mountain Grove to get their documents up to date.

Hicks said it’s especially burdensome on owners of trucking companies in the area, who often must make monthly visits to license offices.

Similarly, the license office in Vandalia, which straddles both Ralls and Audrain counties, closed in 2017 after the Vandalia Housing Authority told the state it was no longer profitable.

Now, Vandalia City Clerk Brandie Gay says the closest offices are in New London, Bowling Green, Mexico or Montgomery City.

The latest office to close was in Licking, which was shut down in January.

Unlike other states where a government agency operates all license offices, Missouri allows companies, individuals and not-for-profit organizations to bid for the right to operate the facilities in exchange for a portion of the fees they collect.

There are 177 offices still operating.

Although Moy said there are no plans to reopen the facilities for now, she didn’t rule out the possibility.

“As we have in the past, we consider need to open additional license offices based upon, among other things, interest in a given area, hardware availability and geographic considerations,” Moy said.

The fee hikes, which go into effect Aug. 28, include an increase in the annual license plate registration fee to $6 from $3.50. The fee for a biennial registration will go to $12 from $7.

The processing fee for a three-year driver’s license will rise to $6 from $2.50. For a driver’s license longer than three years, the fee climbs to $12 from $5.

The fees those offices may charge for title transfers, instructional permits and other specialty licenses will jump to $6 from $2.50 under the new law.

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Kurt Erickson is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch