While Rep. Samuel Azzinaro (D-Westerly) recently drafted a bill he thought would create a fair system of car valuations, Rob Cote, leader of the Car Tax Revolt, says the legislation is pointless and conflicts with a bill Rep. Joseph McNamara (D-Warwick) introduced in January.
In fact, Cote said he made several suggestions for McNamara’s bill, including recommending to modify automobile assessments from full clean retail value to average trade in retail value, as well as setting up a “quantifiable” appeal process in which vehicle owners would be able to submit a certified appraisal to challenge “inflated” values.
“I see no reason to insert another bill, which just muddies the water across the state in the House and Senate when we have a mirror bill that’s been widely accepted across party lines,” Cote said at a hearing before the House Municipal Government Committee at the State House Thursday evening. “Instead of bringing in an additional bill, Azzinaro should have signed on board McNamara’s bill.”
In an interview, Cote said he feels that Azzinaro didn’t do enough research on the topic before drafting his bill, which was held for further study. Otherwise, he would have realized the suggestions he considered are already in practice.
“Azzinaro failed to complete the basic fundamental research on the subject which would be required to put forth any bill,” Cote said.
Azzinaro recommends using the Kelley Blue Book to set valuations for vehicles. However, after being reminded that Rhode Island is presently under a contract with NADA until Dec. 31, 2013, he amended his bill to remain using NADA values so as not to have a loss of revenue for cities and towns.
The fact that Azzinaro wanted to make the switch from the NADA Book to Kelley Blue Book baffles Cote.
“He was informed in great detail by both myself and David Quinn [of the Vehicle Value Commission] that you can’t do that,” Cote said in an interview. “So, why put in this bill at the eleventh hour? He is throwing in a piece of garbage legislation; that is a reflection of someone who doesn’t know his subject matter. All he did was waste time and show his constituents that he’s been asleep at the wheel and just woke up.”
Moreover, Azzinaro recommended staying with clean trade in value, the highest rate of the three set by NADA. He also suggested using a percentage formula that would tax automobiles six years and older at less than 100 percent of their value, which, in fact, is the current system. As vehicles age, their values would be reduced based on a declining percentage scale.
“I’m trying to come up with a fair value for our automobiles and the way they are taxed,” Azzinaro said at the hearing. “No one likes taxes but they are a part of life.”
Azzinaro also said he thinks it’s best to be mindful not to force municipalities to “take a hit” as far as lost revenue is concerned. He said if lower values are placed on vehicles, municipalities could lose 25 to 30 percent of expected revenue.
“I don’t know of any city or town in the state of Rhode Island that can lose that amount of money,” said Azzinaro.
Yet, Cote said Azzinaro’s information is incorrect.
“You’re looking at 12 to 14 percent reduction in the amount of revenue,” said Cote. “Even if it was 100 percent revenue loss, the revenue is being generated unethically.”
Westerly Town Manager Steve Hartford also attended the meeting. He said while he understands the frustration taxpayers have for being “overtaxed,” he, like Azzinaro, is concerned that cities and towns can’t afford to lose revenue.
“While our taxpayers do need tax relief, I don’t think we can give them that tax relief unless there’s some other source of revenue that the state can reinstate down the line,” Hartford said. “This year, municipalities can’t lose revenues that they are currently relying on to correct the valuations.”
Bristol Tax Assessor Evelyn Spagnoto feels the same. Considering budget problems, she also said it is imperative that anticipated revenues will be allowed to be billed so as not to increase property taxes.
“They’ve already cut virtually everything that they possibly can to keep the rates reasonable for property taxes,” she said. “Many [people] have homes that are set higher than the current market values.”
Peder Schaefer of the League of Cities and Towns, as well as Quinn, attended the meeting. They believe fiscal impact studies need to be completed to see how modifying values would affect budgets of cities and towns.
But, Cote said he and other taxpayers don’t want to pay inflated taxes to help build revenue.
“I represent thousands of people across the state that have been aggrieved by an excessive tax that has no fundamental merit [and] is not based on anything that’s ethical or logical – it’s based on confiscating funds,” he said at the hearing. “It’s an archaic system that needs to be changed. People are aggravated and they don’t want to stand for it anymore.”
As he has in the past, Cote said the city of Warwick has failed to make necessary budget cuts. He is tired of not only paying excessive car taxes, but also taxes to support health care plans for municipal workers and overtime pay for firefighters.
In fact, Cote said he’s not pleased that health care plans for municipal workers cost taxpayers $20 million on an annual basis, while municipal workers contribute $1 million, or 5 percent.
“That’s not fair,” Cote said. “We want to see 25 percent. Their 25 percent [would raise] $4 million.”
He also isn’t thrilled with firefighter overtime costs.
“Last year, the Fire Department had $800,000 overtime budgeted and they used $2.86 million,” said Cote. “As of the end of February, the Warwick Fire Department exceeded $3 million worth of overtime simply because of minimum manning, what we affectionately call, ‘Dozing for dollars.’ By the budget hearings, there will be in excess of $4 million overtime.”
If the McNamara bill does not pass, Cote implied that he plans to take legal action against the state. He feels confident he’d be successful.
For now, he hopes the problem is corrected without so much concern to revenue loss.
“Let the chips fall where they fall and repair these residual losses to revenue at a later date,” he said. In an interview, he continued, “you can’t say, ‘We’re going to lose this money,’ because it’s revenue you shouldn’t have had to feed this out of control machine.”
Steven Brown of the ACLU signed up to speak and listed that he favored the bill. He left before getting an opportunity to speak but was contacted via phone Monday and said, “We just want to express our general support for the bill’s efforts to modify and clarify the Vehicle Value Commission’s current, completely inappropriate practice that relies solely on the NADA book value to make these determinations.”
The bill was held for further study.