Travel-loving Minnesotans may find fewer sites where they can apply for and renew passports as counties seek to comply with new State Department restrictions aimed at reducing identity theft.
While some metro area counties already have pared back or moved their passport offices to meet the Nov. 1 deadline, Hennepin County has yet to decide whether it will spend roughly $200,000 to make site changes — or stop offering passport services altogether.
Mark Chapin, head of Hennepin County's taxpayer services, called the situation a "conundrum." That's partly because the State Department hasn't been "real clear" on standards, he said Thursday.
Under the new rules, county employees who issue passports are forbidden to enter areas where birth and identification documents are ordered. That's because of concerns that people seeking one type of document could gain access to personal information related to the others and use it for criminal purposes.
Chapin said employees authorized to take passport information aren't even allowed access to the same paper used for applications for the other documents, nor can they walk behind the counter in the areas where applications are taken for ID cards.
Chapin and county commissioners discussed the status of Hennepin County's passport services at an informal study session Thursday. Board members made no decisions, telling Chapin that they need more information about the potential cost of changes.
Fewer sites in Hennepin County
Hennepin County used to take passport applications at the Government Center in downtown Minneapolis.
But in an early sign of the State Department's clampdown, the federal agency shut down that site last fall, citing security deficiencies.
When Chapin sought an explanation and a second chance, the State Department responded with a letter saying it would not "reactive" the Government Center in part because of 18 "acceptance facilities" nearby, according to the letter from April. (Chapin disputes that list's accuracy.)
The county still takes passport applications at its Southdale, Ridgedale, Brookdale and Maple Grove service centers. In addition to passports, those centers take applications and/or process and issue more than three dozen types of documents and applications, from marriage and liquor licenses to fireworks permits and vehicle license tabs.
Any counties that want to continue issuing passports must reconsider or reconfigure such arrangements, the State Department says.
Other counties adjust
In Anoka County, officials will stop taking passport applications at the service center in Ramsey, according to spokeswoman Martha Weaver. But the county altered its Blaine service center to comply with the federal rules and will continue to take applications there.
Dakota and Ramsey counties also have made adjustments to comply.
Kathy Jensen, director of Dakota County's service and license centers, said it made changes in April. Passport applications are now taken at service centers in Hastings and Apple Valley, but not in West St. Paul, which still processes birth and death certificates. The Apple Valley center handles only passports now, not birth and death certificates. Hastings still takes both identification and passport applications.
In Ramsey County, passport applications are taken in a building different from the one where birth and death certificate copy requests are made through the county's Health Department. Jeffrey Schmitz, Ramsey County's passport facility manager, said the passport center has been at the Plato Boulevard building since July 2011 — about the same time the State Department started tightening the rules on passport applications. "Every six months or so, a new rule comes out, making it more strict," Schmitz said.
Hennepin County Board Chairman Mike Opat said he's concerned about spending an estimated $200,000 to set up the physical barriers needed to keep taking passport applications at three sites.
"What's the long-term future?" he asked. "Are they going to allow anyone other than the Post Office or the federal government to issue them? At some point, are they just going to say, 'nobody but the Post Office'?"