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As Lawmakers Consider Statewide Closures, Presidio Driver's License Office Halts Service Due To Staffing Issue

DPS says Presidio's driver's license office will close until a new employee is hired and trained. (Carlos Morales / Marfa Public Radio)

The Department of Public Safety announced Friday that it will temporarily close its driver's license office located in the city of Presidio. The disruption in service is due to a staffing shortage.

The announcement comes one week ahead of a meeting of the Sunset Commission -- an advisory arm of the Texas Legislature -- during which, lawmakers will decide whether to formalize a proposal to close 87 drivers license offices across the state.

The Commission is designed to evaluate state agencies  -- including the Department of Public Safety, or DPS. In an April report, Commission staff recommended that DPS develop a plan to close low-volume or inefficient drivers license offices across the state.

According to the report, the department issues more than 4 million driver's licenses a year, and average wait times at some larger facilities are over an hour and counting. Closing "inefficient" offices would afford DPS an opportunity redirect resources to facilities grappling with higher demand.

In the report, Commission staff urged that "the driver license program cannot compete with public safety priorities."

Nearly 90 percent of the locations on the list of potential closures -- which was generated by DPS --  are the only places to obtain ID in their counties. More than 10 listed offices in West Texas fit that criteria, including Presidio's. And while the temporary closure is not directly related to the Sunset Commission's report, some city officials worry it could give residents a glimpse into a potentially longer-term reality. 

According to Presidio Mayor John Ferguson, the city has had to fight to keep its driver's license office open since May of 2017, when -- without notification to city officials -- he says a note was posted on the DPS office door that announced it would be closing.

Ferguson and his colleagues pushed back and managed to keep the branch open with limited hours. "It's been over a year now that we've been kind of limping along with one day a week," he says.

The current closure is due to the departure of an employee who staffed both the Presidio office and the Alpine office, 85 miles to the north. DPS says the Alpine office, formerly open 4 days a week, will shift to Tuesdays and Thursdays -- manned by a representative from the Fort Stockton office. The department is aiming to have a new employee in place by January 2019.

Presidio City Administrator Jose Portillo Jr. is frustrated by the burden this puts on residents of Presidio and the surrounding communities in the meantime.

"They're going to have to arrange a day off from work, they're going to have to fill up their tank of gas, and they're going to have to drive to Alpine or Fort Stockton," he says -- a 170 or 300 mile round trip, respectively.

According to Portillo, the median income in Presidio is $24,000. With the added costs of travel, unpaid work days, and the services themselves, he's worried that some residents will not realistically be able to make the trip.

The closure also makes Portillo worried about the upcoming November elections. "This is one of the verifiable methods that they're implementing for someone to go and vote," he says. "So if you take that capability away from them and they have to drive to Alpine, people are going to have to make tough decisions."

In a press release, regional DPS spokesperson Elizabeth Carter wrote that "the majority of customers who come into Texas driver license offices don't have to." Instead, she offers, drivers can complete most transactions online, by phone, or by mail.

Carter added that "the department will continue to work with the Legislature during the upcoming session to obtain the resources needed to meet [the] growing demand [for driver's license services] and provide the quality customer service that Texans expect and deserve."

In addition to suggesting DPS come up with a plan to close inefficient driver's license offices, the Sunset Commission's April report recommended that DPS and the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles do a joint analysis of what it would take to transfer the driver's license program over to the DMV -- as is done in 42 other states.

Jose Portillo of Presidio likes this idea, but he cautions, "don't do it piecemeal. Don't shut down all of the services and put us in a bad place for a year or two years until you come up with the fix."

In the last week, Texas lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have voiced their opposition to the potential closures.  The Sunset Commission’s voting body will meet Wednesday to decide whether to bring the proposal to the upcoming Legislative Session this January. 


Carlos Morales is Marfa Public Radio's News Director.