By Ray Balogh
NAPPANEE — Four officials from the Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles convened a public hearing Tuesday evening, Aug. 23, on the state’s proposal to close the Nappanee license branch.
In the local vernacular, they got everything they came for, and then some.
About 40 residents of Nappanee and surrounding communities attended the meeting held at the Nappanee Center and more than a dozen of them weighed in on the issue in the 70-minute discussion, voicing a unanimous sentiment to keep the branch open.
The state contingent consisted of Joe Hoage, who is serving in his first year as BMV commissioner; Kevin Garvey, chief operating officer; Holly Sample, deputy commissioner of branch operations; and Susie Guyer, chief communications and engagement officer.
City officials at the meeting included Mayor Phil Jenkins; Clerk-Treasurer Jeff Knight; city attorney Brian Hoffer; and Jeff Kitson, executive director of the Nappanee Chamber of Commerce and director of the Nappanee Center.
Hoage commenced the meeting by clarifying its purpose. “We are taking unlimited comment on the proposal to close the Nappanee branch. No decision has been made, and we appreciate your passion for your community.”
Addressing the backlash covered in a front page article in the Saturday, Aug. 20, Goshen News, Hoage acknowledged the bureau’s faux pas in not directly notifying the mayor’s office of the meeting.
As a result, Jenkins learned about the event from Hoffer, who read the press release scant days before the meeting.
“The Open Door Law requires 48 hours’ notice with no intervening holidays or weekends. We send these notices 10 days in advance by posting them at the branch, issuing a press release and putting it on social media.
“We should have taken the extra step of notifying the mayor or the council. It is a valid piece of criticism and we will incorporate that step going forward,” said Hoage.
Hoage summarized the points printed on the fact sheet distributed at check-in. Salient statistics include:
• Compared to neighboring branches, Nappanee had only 4% of the total transactions since 2016, and since 2021, 18% fewer than the next lowest per day average.
• Residents of the 46550 ZIP code used the branch for less than half their transactions, opting to transact business by kiosk, internet, mail or phone most of the time.
• Elkhart, Goshen, Mishawaka, Plymouth, South Bend and Warsaw are all within a 27-mile radius of Nappanee. Four of them have kiosks with 24/7 availability.
The bureau shoulders the fixed annual cost of $72,000 to operate the Nappanee location, no matter how many days a week it is open: $32,000 in rent and the remainder for internet and interdepartmental connectivity and associated expenses. The figures do not include staffing.
Garvey addressed the Amish patronage of the branch. He indicated horse-drawn buggies and trailer registration can be handled through the county, apart from visiting the license branch.
He said 20% of the Amish community uses mail for plates and registration. Online and kiosk transactions are also available. He further stated customers are not required to transact business in the county of their residence.
“Our goal is to make sure customers have choices,” he said, “and that they can make those choices.”
“We have performed 4.2 million transaction so far this year,” said Hoage. “Customer patterns change, and not as many people do business at the branches. So we have to ask, ‘Is this a good use of taxpayer dollars?’”
Jenkins spoke on behalf of the community. “Thank you for being here, and thank you for being fiscally responsible,” he said. He then used the same statistics in the fact sheet to show Nappanee experiences more transactions per capita than other branch sites.
“People come to Nappanee because other branches are busy, and traveling 27 miles is a hardship for some in our community.”
Citing the example of public schools, Jenkins said, “There are some things a community doesn’t make money on, but they are offered because they improve the quality of life.”
He offered to work with the BMV to secure more financially feasible accommodations by helping reduce rent or finding an alternative location.
Larry Burkholder addressed the BMV officials as a member of the local Amish community.
“The branch is very vital to Amish people. We get a lot of personal IDs. We will have to get a taxi to go to Plymouth, Warsaw, Elkhart or Goshen,” he said, citing taxi fare of $1 per mile and an hourly fee for waiting time.
Milford resident Troy Kennedy said, “Everybody we know in our area comes here. We need this facility to take care of us.”
Several speakers alleged inaccuracy in the comparative figures on the fact sheet, noting the Nappanee branch cut operating hours from five to three days a week in 2012 and two days a week this year.
Transaction totals were compared to other branches operating five days a week.
Further, the COVID shutdown affected personal branch visits the past couple years, an anomaly not taken into sufficient account, according to at least one speaker.
Confining the analysis to the 46550 ZIP code was another statistical inadequacy, according to Betty Slagle, who managed the Nappanee branch for 12 years until 2006.
She recited about 10 other ZIP codes for areas including Wakarusa, New Paris, Milford and other communities she asserted were all considered “the Nappanee area.”
Other speakers mentioned the hours are not posted in the community and the website erroneously lists the wrong days of operation. “How do we know when the branch is open or closed?” asked Elizabeth Anglemyer.
“If you want this community to grow, we need a BMV. For people who live here and people thinking of moving in, it does matter and it does count.”
Others mentioned the burden of having to drive to other locations with gasoline hovering at $4 a gallon and the need to take time out of a workday.
Kitson described the ethos of the town and its residents during his turn to speak. “In Nappanee we like to get in front of people. We like the personal touch, the relationship we can’t get online. This branch is more a community than it is a number.
“Taking away the branch is taking away part of our identity as a city of hope, a city of faith. Give us an opportunity to get face to face and I guarantee you the numbers will go up.
“I get a clear shot of the branch from my window, and I see a lot of people there on non-open days because they thought the branch was open.”
Denny Miller, who manages a business across the street from the Nappanee branch, pointed out those patrons who travel to Goshen or another branch will spend money there on food, gasoline and groceries during their trip. He prefers to adhere to the motto, “Shop, eat, stay in Nappanee.”
After the comments Hoage concluded, “This is my first public meeting, and I can honestly say I’ve learned a lot of things. I’m not surprised by your civility and courtesy. We will come up with a decision in the next 30 days, and I will communicate directly with the mayor’s office before the press release goes out.”
Opportunity for public comment closed at 11:59 p.m. Tuesday.
After the meeting, Jenkins said, “We are open to discuss looking at alternative locations and possible funding from the city budget if this is a financial matter.
“I am pleased with the people who came out. I think everyone here is an example of the whole community.”