Theodore Decker: How a Dispatch reporter's BMV trip may save Ohioans $3 million

·4 min read
In 2019, then Columbus Dispatch reporter Randy Ludlow wrote a story on how Ohio deputy registrars were still charging a $1.50 lamination fee even though they were no longer doing the laminating work on Ohio driver's licence cards.
In 2019, then Columbus Dispatch reporter Randy Ludlow wrote a story on how Ohio deputy registrars were still charging a $1.50 lamination fee even though they were no longer doing the laminating work on Ohio driver's licence cards.

We gathered at the Budd Dairy Food Hall Wednesday night, doing what all coworkers do, whether their jobs are reporting the news, teaching schoolchildren to read and write, or standing the factory line.

We groused, of course, and lamented the recent news about the state of our industry. But as it inevitably does, the conversation kept returning to news stories from the past, stories of that day and stories still to run.

One of those stories was reported on Wednesday. It wasn't very long, or the biggest story of the day.

But it is a fine example of what Dispatch journalists do, and I thought I'd revisit it.

The story reported the status of a class action lawsuit against the Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles that could force the state to return more than $3 million to Ohio drivers who paid a $1.50 license lamination fee between July 2018 and July 2019.

The suit seeks to have the $1.50 fee, plus interest, paid to an estimated 2 million affected Ohio drivers.

Randy Ludlow, seen here asking a question during an early coronavirus news conference by Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine on March 27, 2020, was a longtime Columbus Dispatch government reporter.
Randy Ludlow, seen here asking a question during an early coronavirus news conference by Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine on March 27, 2020, was a longtime Columbus Dispatch government reporter.

Randy Ludlow, a longtime Dispatch statehouse reporter who retired in 2021, was one of them.

Randy joined us at Budd Dairy and recounted how he got onto the license fee story. It was simple, really. He went to the BMV, paid to renew his license, and looked at the receipt.

The $1.50 "lamination fee" leaped out at him because he knew that deputy registrars had ceased laminating the cards. By that point, the licenses were produced by BMV vendors. The deputy registrars just passed along each driver's information. The vendor did the rest.

From there, Randy did what he lives for. He started digging, and the headline that topped his eventual front-page story is a classic if you've ever been frustrated by the inanities of a bureaucracy:

"State charged fee for nothing."

"The Bureau of Motor Vehicles has allowed its deputy registrars to charge Ohio motorists more than $3 million for a service the registrars no longer perform," it began.

Three years later, the class action lawsuit is chugging forward based on his findings.

On an individual basis, the $1.50 fee may be small potatoes. But as Catherine Turcer, executive director of the good-government group Common Cause Ohio, rightly told Randy at the time, it was the principle of the thing that mattered.

"Clearly, the registrars should not be charging for something they are not providing," she said. "That's not fair. Many of us don't think about a buck-fifty. It's not a big deal. But it is a big deal when you think about being charged extra fees for no reason. We want to spend our money on what we expected."

The story was par for the course for Randy, who has lived and breathed newsgathering since he started as a copy boy at The Indianapolis News in 1972.

I remember one night after work in 2009, when the lot of us had gathered at a Downtown bar known as The Inn Between. In walked Gov. Ted Strickland and his entourage. Before the rest of us could say the words, "Hey, it's Strickland ..." Randy was gone from our table, pad in hand, firing questions at Strickland about the news of the day. We joked later that someone on the governor's staff probably got a dressing-down for unwittingly leading Strickland straight into Randy Ludlow's watering hole.

He kept up this energy right to retirement, laying the groundwork for Dispatch reporting that led to the uncovering of widespread abuses at the state's prison system intake center.

As the talk of other reporting went around the table on Wednesday night, I felt a familiar feeling, one that surfaces whenever I'm around my Dispatch colleagues as they talk shop.

It's a sense that I'm lucky to know them and call them my peers. Often, I'll admit, that feeling is accompanied by the nagging suspicion that I'm an interloper who has somehow managed to weasel his way into a circle of much more talented folks. Maybe they haven't noticed yet, I think, although I can hear Randy grumbling right now, "We have, Decker. We have."

I try to limit the cheerleading in this space, but as the industry heads into what sounds like another rough patch, I thought some was in order. I appreciate the journalists filling our pages and website with the latest news, compelling images, sports commentary and more. I hope you still do, too.

Theodore Decker is the Dispatch metro columnist.

@Theodore_Decker

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This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: Driver's license fee piqued reporter's curiosity, may save Ohioans $3M