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Caravan for a cause

Protesters Joshua Raby and Bertha Nettles were two of several gathered in front of the Butler County Courthouse Thursday to express concern for the closing of 31 driver's license offices throughout the state.

Protesters Joshua Raby and Bertha Nettles were two of several gathered in front of the Butler County Courthouse Thursday to express concern for the closing of 31 driver’s license offices throughout the state.

A caravan of a different sort rolled through the Camellia City Thursday afternoon to protest the closings of 31 satellite driver’s license offices throughout Alabama, including 11 in the state’s Black Belt region.

The caravan outlined a plan to visit 11 Black Belt counties in two days to meet with local leaders to express concern for the citizens of rural Alabama, and the potential problems the closings could present.

Sen. Hank Sanders (D-Selma) sat at the helm of the caravan, and met with various members of the Butler County Commission—including Allin Whittle, Jesse McWilliams and Frank Hickman—and its citizens to let their voices be heard in front of the Butler County courthouse.

Probate judge Steve Norman also discussed the already difficult proposition facing the local driver’s license office, and remarked on how the new developments made an already tough job even tougher.

“Our driver’s license office was only open two days a week as it was,” Norman said. “It also affects some of our truck drivers, who have CDL licenses that have to be renewed periodically, and they have to go through the driver’s license office.  It’s a terrible inconvenience for a lot of folks, particularly our teenagers and their parents.

“I certainly hope that the governor will reconsider his decision to shut down these offices. The financial impact does not seem to be very significant, having these offices operational.”

Sanders said that chief among his concerns with the office closings was the fact that there was no basis for closing down the offices, citing the 54-percent increase in driver’s license fees in Alabama during the past four years as well as ostensibly contradictory budget statements from the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency made last month.

“This is from the 2016 budget that was just adopted in September,” Sanders said.

‘It is the intent of the Legislature that the State Law Enforcement Agency (to) utilize funding from (the 54 percent driver’s license fee increase implemented earlier this year) to adequately fund and staff driver license offices to minimize customer inconvenience,” the budget document states. It is further the intent of the Legislature that all driver’s license offices and trooper posts in operation at the beginning of fiscal year 2015 remain in operation during fiscal year 2016. Any reductions in force implemented in 2016 focus on areas that won’t impact customer service.’

“When you raise the driver’s license fee from about $23 to $36, then whatever cut they had, that amount was more than the cut was.  There is no basis for this shutdown whatsoever.”

Preceding Sanders’ message were several traveling members of the caravan—both from affected and unaffected counties—with various stories to tell of their own.

“We don’t believe that one day a month is enough, and we’re going to keep fighting until there are no shutdowns,” said Sanders’ wife, Faya Rose. “This is a movement, and not a moment.  I’m afraid that if they get away with this, then it will soon be something else.”

Despite their various backgrounds, the message was the same—a people united can never be defeated.

“We have to unite not only across race, gender and age, but geographical differences,” Sanders said. “That’s why I’m so glad that a group came down from Birmingham to join the caravan.

“If we unite, then we can accomplish all kinds of things.”