Why there are so many cars in Mexico with license plates from this small South Dakota county
Cars all over the vacation mecca of Cabo San Lucas, at the tip of Mexico's Baja Peninsula, sport South Dakota license plates. Most common: The "19" plates that originate in Clay County, S.D., population 14,000. Why?
SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — Bob Jankovics was fed up, and as he dragged his luggage through the arrivals terminal in Mexico, his frustration boiled over. It was so hard to get your car licensed in the U.S. if you live in a different country. Then, he recalled, a stranger turned around and said the magic words.
"Haven't you heard about South Dakota?"
Jankovics, an insurance agent, knew South Dakota was a state and housed Mount Rushmore, and that was about it. But what he would discover would change his life and revolutionize the license plate business in one South Dakota county.
Now, about a decade later, cars all over the vacation mecca of Cabo San Lucas, at the tip of the Baja Peninsula, sport South Dakota license plates. Most common: The "19" plates that originate in Clay County, S.D., population 14,000.
How did this small South Dakota county become a hub for selling license plates to people who might never set foot in the state, for cars that will never drive on the state's roads?
Two reasons: South Dakota's special set of car licensing laws and Jankovics' pipeline to Clay County, where the treasurer's office has developed a specialization in efficiently handling such license plates.
The Clay County pipeline
In 2007, not long after his airport conversation, Jankovics traveled to South Dakota. He flew to Omaha, Nebraska, drove into South Dakota, and headed west to Vermillion, the county seat of Clay County.
When it comes to vehicle licensing, South Dakota is special. It's what is known as an "open registration" state. That means you don't have to be a state resident to register your vehicle in South Dakota, which offers a lot of potentially money saving benefits.
Unlike many other states, South Dakota doesn't require a VIN check upon registration or a vehicle emissions test, which means the car never needs to physically be in the state.
The state doesn't require drivers to have a South Dakota driver's license to get South Dakota plates. And cars don't have to be covered by U.S. insurance if they're never on U.S. roads.
Once in Clay County, Jankovics stopped into the county treasurer's office.
"There I met a very, very super individual, one of the nicest people I’ve ever met in my life, in my 75 years," Jankovics said.
Her name was Cathi Powell, the Clay County treasurer. Now retired, Powell spent a 40-year career in the office, first as deputy treasurer until elected treasurer in 1993 until her retirement last year.
The Clay County Treasurer's Office was no stranger to nonresident license plate requests. Powell said she believed they were perhaps more common in the county due to ROTC members who registered vehicles in Clay County while at the University of South Dakota, then kept up the registration as they moved to assignments around the country. Even then, the state was one of the cheapest places to register a vehicle.
Over the years, the office handled similar requests for snowbirds, who spent some time in places such as Mexico before returning back to the U.S., as well as others who traveled a lot as a way of life.
But Jankovics took the state's license plate rules and turned them into a business . He and his wife, Anita, started offering to handle nonresident vehicle registration as a service for others, dealing with the paperwork and hassle for a fee.
Powell doesn't remember her first meeting with Jankovics. But she does remember how quickly Bob and Anita picked up the paperwork needs and other requirements.
" I remember once we got started we talked to them a lot because they were always calling us a lot for advice. Until they got it down pat," Powell said. "They very seldom call us now and ask us (for advice).”
It's not clear how many nonresident registrations are handled by Jankovics or others like him, said current Clay County Treasurer Rhonda Howe. The county doesn't track them. Neither does the state.
A 2018 Rapid City Journal article about the practice found there were about 58,000 out-of-state license holders in South Dakota, most with registrations in Pennington County, with Clay County in second place.
Last year, the state Legislature approved a law allowing the county treasurer's office to charge a $25 fee for handing a nonresident license. With the volume of fees she takes in, Powell was able to add another person to her office.
Any South Dakota county treasurer's office could do the same thing Clay County does. But many don't. Many county treasurers are small — just a treasurer and a deputy, Powell said. Others refuse to handle out-of-state checks. Rapid City is another hub for nonresident registrations, likely because they're home to so many mail forwarding services.
But for Clay County, it's people like Jankovics, who picked the small county almost at random so many years ago and elevated it to a hub for out-of-state vehicle registrations. While others provide services similar to Jankovics, he handles the most, both Powell and Howe agreed.
"Not at the volume Bob does," said Howe, the current Clay County treasurer. "He's a go-getter."
Fugleberg can be followed on Twitter at @jayfug and reached at email@example.com or 605-777-3357.