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Local county clerks join chorus against license plate fees

The governor’s office is asking New Yorkers to vote among five options for new license plates.

Essex County’s Joseph Provoncha, Hamilton County’s Jane Zarecki and Warren County’s Pamela Vogel joined five other county clerks from around the state at a press conference Wednesday in Clifton Park to announce their opposition to a controversial license plate replacement plan.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo and state Department of Motor Vehicles Commissioner Mark Schroeder asked residents last month to vote for one of five proposed license plate designs. The winning plate — which has not yet been announced, but will replace the current “Empire Gold” plates as well as the earlier blue and white plates — will be available to drivers next year as part of a 10-year license plate replacement program.

The opposition centers not so much around the new design as its accompanying fee. When drivers renew their registration, a $25 replacement fee will be added to their existing registration renewal fee, as well as an additional $20 fee for those who want to keep their current license plate number.

Both Republican and Democratic lawmakers take issue with that. State Sen. Jim Tedisco, R-Glenville, likened the plan to a “cash grab” and called for the legislature to hold hearings in the fall on the license plate fee to garner input from the public and “examine why the state isn’t seeking to claw back costs from the previous license plate vendor, 3M, rather than further gouge taxpayers.”

The replacement plan does not require legislative approval, according to the Albany Times Union newspaper.

Gov. Cuomo has argued that older plates are difficult to read as a result of damage, peeling and oxidation, and the replacement plan is necessary to cut down on legibility issues as cashless tolling systems and red-light cameras become more prevalent.

But Zarecki, the Hamilton County clerk, said it’s just an additional burden on New Yorkers.

“It is just a money grab, and here in the North Country, this just adds an additional burden on our already overstressed taxpayers who are just trying to hold it together to feed their families,” she said in a statement. “Being we have no public transportation, their vehicles are their lifeline to support the ones they love. It pains me to see this happen, another mandate we have no control over and just shoved down our throats.”

Essex County’s Provoncha said the replacement plan will also add another burden to DMV offices run by counties.

“(Schroeder) has let county clerks and DMV offices down,” he said in a statement. “With no consideration of existing workloads. NYS DMV continues to pile on the work with no regard to customer service, office functionality or monetary compensation. It is exceptionally frustrating to have to answer to my constituents for excessive fees, prohibitive requirements, and long wait times that are a result from NYS DMV implementing policies without feedback from those of us on the front lines.”

Gov. David Paterson attempted to require license plate replacement nearly 10 years ago as a way to shore up $129 million for the state, according to the Times Union. After receiving some pushback from lawmakers, Paterson abandoned the mandate, phasing in the new plates and letting people keep old ones.

Kari Ratliff, a supervisor at the Essex County DMV office and an independent candidate running against Provoncha for Essex County clerk, said if drivers will be forced to replace their plates this time, she’s “100% against” the plan.

“That’s just unfair,” she said. “They’re milking people.”

Ratliff said she’s seen drivers who still have the blue and white license plates on their vehicles that are in good condition.

“If they’re not, we’ve been replacing them for free,” she said. “If this is being mandated, I’m opposed to it, too. We already give enough.”

License plates are manufactured by state prison inmates, who make around $1.14 per hour. Tedisco’s office estimates that manufacturing costs will be around $2.3 million per year, and the license replacement fee will create $70 million in new revenue for the state, not including money that would come from those who want to keep their current license plate number.

“The resistance to Governor Cuomo’s highway heist to raise license plate fees on millions of motorists is growing, and it starts right at the front offices of the people on the ground who actually will have to administer this $70 million cash grab by the state: our local county clerks!” Tedisco said in a statement. “The $45 license plate tax is a bad idea. It’s not necessary, and the governor should listen to the overwhelming chorus of people who are outraged by it and do the right thing by revoking it.”

Cuomo told WAMC public radio last month he’s not responsible for the fee.

“So I didn’t set the $25; it’s been there since before I was governor. A Democratic senator said it. I said, ‘You passed it; it’s your fault.’ You want to come back in a special session and change it? Come tomorrow. I welcome you,” he said.

A law adopted in 2009 allows the state to charge up to $25 for plate replacement. The state is not required to charge that amount.