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Ask a Journalist: I'm stuck in line at the DMV. What's going on?

Benjamin Schachtman
The North Carolina Motor Vehicle License Plate Agency located off of Carolina Beach in Wilmington, North Carolina.

A WHQR listener emailed the newsroom to ask about why there are so few DMV License Plate Agencies to serve the significant population of the Cape Fear region. WHQR’s News Director Ben Schachtman sat down with reporter Camille Mojica to see what she found out for our latest ‘Ask a Journalist’ segment.

Benjamin Schachtman: Okay, Cami, someone emailed the newsroom asking about something I’m sure we’ve all noticed or had to deal with before, and that’s the long lines at the DMV office and the License Plate Agency.

Camille Mojica: Yes, that’s correct. The lines are out the door sometimes all the way into the parking lot.

Ben: So, can you catch us up to speed about this whole thing? What is going on, and why are there so few locations?

Cami: So I spoke with Marty Homan with The North Carolina Department of Transportation who’s been answering a lot of questions about this lately. First, is how we got here. A thing to note, is that license plate agencies or LPAs are run by independent contractors. So three locations, the ones in Hampstead, Wilmington, and Shallotte closed due to their operators retiring. For some of those retirements, they had advance notice, but for the one in Wilmington, they only had a day or two notice before it closed, which was not ideal.

BS: Nope, I would say that is not ideal. And that meant the entire place closed, just because one person retired?

CM: That’s right. On top of those three, there were two other closures: Southport and Jacksonville. They closed because of contract violations, and in that case, they shut down the agency immediately. That’s why some of these closings took people by surprise.

Ben: So how did they end up violating their contract? What does that mean?

Cami: They wouldn’t get into the minute details with me, but there’s many terms and conditions that each agency needs to follow. When terms and conditions are violated, the agency is closed immediately, usually with little notice.

Ben: Ok, I’m starting to get it. We had a lot of closures, some because of retirements, and others because of these violations. So what does the process look like for finding new operators?

Cami: Great question! Short answer is, it’s a long process. Long story, there’s background checks and training that goes into the whole process. So it starts with a press release about the need for someone to run the agencies. Then, they get bids and interview the candidates. An extensive background check needs to happen because there’s a lot of sensitive information that goes through those facilities, things like license numbers, title numbers, social security numbers, all that stuff. Once that goes through, then these contractors need to be trained in the business of titles and how those work. And that’s several weeks. So the whole process itself takes months.

Ben: OK, that seems a little unwieldy – and maybe a little unusual. Is it the same thing that happens in other states?

Cami: Based on my research, yes! The license plate agencies are independent contractors that the departments of motor vehicles in each state have contracts with. So the actual DMV office is for road tests and licenses and things of that nature but your plates are separate. Some DMV offices, though, do them both.

Ben: Ok, got it. Now I want to get to the thing I think a lot of people will want to know – are there any updates on whether these locations will open up again?

Cami: Sure can! The good news is, the Wilmington office opened back up this week. Jacksonville and Shallotte will be opening up towards the end of May, Southport, is expected to open around sometime in the August timeframe. And then Hampstead sometime late summer, early fall.

Ben: Alright, have there been any holdups in this process?

Cami: Well the Hampstead location has had a hard time finding the space to hold the office. The thing is, it’s easier to move back into one that already existed because the security measures, like cameras and all that, are already in place. But the landlord that had that location, rented that space out right away so they need to find somewhere new.

Ben: Well, Cami, thanks for looking into this and, I have to say, I’m happy to know we’ll have plenty of these LPAs available to cover our region again by this fall.

Cami: No problem!

[Editor's note: As a clarification, the process of finding new agency operators is not technically a 'bid' process — i.e. it's not the formal process where the government selects the 'lowest responsible bid,' etc. The state announces it is open for applications and then reviews those applications.]

Camille hails from Long Island, NY and graduated from Boston University with a BS in Journalism and double minors in Classical Civilizations and Philosophy. Her story focus revolves her deep care for children, young adults and mental health. You can reach her at cmojica@whqr.org.
Ben Schachtman is a journalist and editor with a focus on local government accountability. He began reporting for Port City Daily in the Wilmington area in 2016 and took over as managing editor there in 2018. He’s a graduate of Rutgers College and later received his MA from NYU and his PhD from SUNY-Stony Brook, both in English Literature. He loves spending time with his wife and playing rock'n'roll very loudly. You can reach him at BSchachtman@whqr.org and find him on Twitter @Ben_Schachtman.