Driver's license testing centers closing

By Kathy Helms-Hughes
STAR STAFF
khelms@starhq.com

   Carter County's driver's license testing center on West Elk Avenue will close its doors April 30 when the Tennessee Department of Safety's lease on the building expires.
   Tom Moore, deputy commissioner, said the closure in Carter County is not a permanent one, but he did not have a definite date for reopening the center.
   "The previous administration entered into a new contract with the lessor for a new building. Because the previous administration had done that, we went ahead and honored that lease, and as soon as that one gets open we will be restaffing it," he said.
   Part-time testing centers in Johnson, Unicoi and Greene counties will be closed permanently by July 1. Thursday reportedly was the last day of operation for the testing center in Johnson County, while Unicoi's center could close as early as next week. Other stations across the state will be closed as their leases expire. Washington, Sullivan and Hamblen County centers will remain open.
   The Department of Safety is facing budget cuts of more than $9.9 million."It's a money-saving issue, because we're in budget cuts right now," Moore said. "If all of a sudden we get a big windfall, yes, we'll go back and reopen these stations we're having to close because of these constraints. But unless somebody wants to start paying a fortune for driver's licenses, I don't see how we can keep them open."
   Carter County's testing center was considered part-time. When it reopens, it will be a full-time station and will nearly triple in size, according to Moore. "As soon as we get the new facility built, we're going to reopen that and restaff it and expand it."
   Moore said the affected employees will be pulled into different locations. "Right now in Carter County we only have one employee that actually lives there. One lives in Sullivan and one lives in Unicoi County. So they will be relocated either to Sullivan or Washington counties," he said.
   Moore said the department is trying to move some of its stations and relocate others so that every Tennessean is within about 25 miles of a driver's license testing facility.
   "To be quite honest, I wish we could have one in everybody's hometown, but we've got to be realistic. We're under tough economic times and we're trying to make it as convenient as possible," Moore said.
   "At the same time, we're looking at each of the county court clerks and seeing if they would like to assist in issuing renewals and duplicate driver's licenses. Like if yours comes up for renewal this time, instead of having to go to Elizabethton or Johnson City, you can go to your local county court clerk -- if they will enter into a contract with us -- and get it done at that location."
   Surveys were sent to clerks offices across the state. Out of 70 surveys that have been returned, more than half of the respondents indicated they were interested, according to Moore.
   Drivers also can renew their licenses or change their addresses on-line by going to the State of Tennessee home page (www.tennessee.gov). "If somebody doesn't have an Internet connection, they can go to any public library and get Internet access," Moore said. "The last figures I saw, about 7,000 people a month were using online renewal."
   Moore said the part-time stations slated for closure account for less than 10 percent of total activity. "The ones that we're leaving open account for over 90 percent. So we're looking at it from a logical standpoint. In some counties, it gets quite expensive if you figure in the drive time, the lease amount, the phone lines and the computer lines on how much it costs to issue a driver's license," he said.
   State Sen. Rusty Crowe, speaking Thursday from Nashville, said he was not surprised by the closures because Gov. Bredesen is "cutting everything."
   "He's cut down four veterans offices that produce $238 million a year in disposable income for veterans, and we've got all of these veterans coming back from the Gulf. He's doing a lot of this kind of stuff and we're trying to work with him, but he's just not budging an inch," Crowe said.
   "Sales tax is up 16 percent this year, but it's all going right back into TennCare where it's being eaten up. He's got to do something about TennCare. It's not a legislative program; it's an Executive Branch program. He has to make the changes, and we're trying to get him to," Crowe said.