It’s been about a year and a half since Rob Cote initiated Warwick’s Car Tax Revolt and he’s still advocating for “fair” values on motor vehicles.
Along with nearly 15 concerned citizens from throughout the state, as well as Kristen Catanzaro, president of the North Providence Town Council, and Hilary Davis of the Rhode Island American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Cote attended last week’s public hearing held by the Vehicle Valuation Committee at the Department of Administration in Providence.
The purpose of the hearing was for members of the commission to hear comments from the public about the proposed methodology for determining the value of motor vehicles.
Cote, as he has done multiple times since the summer of 2011, expressed his frustration for what he describes as an “unconstitutional,” “oppressive” and “fictitious” tax.
“Vehicles are being taxed at 100 percent full clean retail value,” he said. “We all know that nobody can get that type of money for their vehicle. That’s problematic, from everybody’s point of view, specifically, from our most sensitive residents – senior citizens, veterans [and] people who are living on fixed incomes.”
Cote feels so strongly about the issue that he spent $10,000 of his own money through the course of a year in efforts to help lower the tax. Along with State Representative Joseph McNamara, he composed a bill, which was introduced into the Rhode Island General Assembly. The bill proposed dropping the value of vehicles from full clean retail to the average trade-in value.
“[It] was widely accepted by both the House and the Senate, and overwhelmingly endorsed on a bipartisan level,” said Cote. “Unfortunately, it’s not out of committee because, as we all know, nothing gets out of committee unless certain people allow it to.”
The key problem, said Cote, was that people such as Dan Beardsley from the League of Cities and Towns, and other tax assessors, were more concerned about revenue streams.
He went on to say he believes it’s unfortunate that the Commission doesn’t take into consideration that the automobile industry sets the values of vehicles based on condition and mileage. Changing vehicles from full clean retail to average trade-in value, said Cote, would result in about a 12 percent reduction for each taxpayer. If the change is implemented, he feels it would eliminate the appeal process.
“People are not going to appeal it because they are going to have a tax that they can swallow and that actually looks realistic,” he said. “You have an obligation to do the correct thing. I’m begging you to take into consideration the constitutional issue, the moral issue, the ethical issue and the fair issue, as opposed to coming together and rubber-stamping the same obnoxious, illicit method that you have been using for years.”
Further, he noted that less than 5 percent of vehicles sold in the United States today meet the criteria for full clean retail value. A visit to the NADA website, he said, proves this.
Catanzaro agrees with Cote. She said the hearing marked the second time she’s testified in front of the Commission.
The reason she attended the meeting, she said, is due to the fact that her constituents have made an outcry in response to the tax.
“I’m constantly listening to my constituents [say], ‘We are being valued unfairly on our vehicles and if we could get the amount of money for our vehicles that the town is valuing us on, then we would rather sell our vehicles and get the money. They are hitting home with these unrealistic values,’” she said.
Catanzaro also concurred with Cote in regards to the appeal process. She said her constituents frequently tell her they visit Town Hall in protest.
“If the NADA book says their value is what it is, it’s rubber stamped and sent back,” she said. “That appeal process is also unfair. The people are asking this committee to look at everything and be fair. It’s sad to hear someone say as an assessor, ‘Well, where are we going to get the money if we do the right thing?’ It’s not justifying the means to say, ‘Well, if we’re overtaxing a vehicle, we need that money to make it work in our community.’ It’s wrong. They need to look in other places if that’s the case.”
Karin Gorman, a candidate for Johnston State Representative District 43, feels the same. During walks of the district, she has met people who have noted that they can’t afford the car tax.
“I’ve had people cry to me [and] it’s heartbreaking,” she said. “You have to think of the taxpayers. These people are hanging onto their homes. They can’t do it anymore.”
Davis also addressed the Commission and submitted a letter from local ACLU Executive Director Steven Brown. She expressed the views of the ACLU when she spoke, noting that members of the organization continue to be “very concerned” with what they view as a violation of Rhode Island taxpayers’ rights relative to the Vehicle Value Commission and a failure of the Commission to operate within the law to enact “reasonable” way of valuing vehicles.
“We don’t see the failure of the General Assembly to act on the bill previously as any sort of endorsement of what has been going on the last few years, but of a reinforcement of the Commission in and of itself has the ability to make the decisions to instigate a more fair and accurate reporting of the vehicle condition,” Davis said. “This is placing a significant burden on Rhode Islanders and has for many years. We hope this is the year when the Vehicle Value Commission will be able to institute this new, fair policy.”
Like Cote, Davis said modifying the policy would lead to fewer appeals.
Members of the public, including Mark Paiva of Smithfield, Gary Whitney of North Kingstown and Dan Piccoli of Warwick, said they disagree with the methodology.
“Most of us feel that the way things are is getting to be a joke,” Whitney said. “No one respects the way we feel.”
In a separate interview with the Warwick Beacon, Piccoli said the state is “bleeding him dry.”
In addition to viewing the methodology as unjust, Cote said the Commission is in violation of the law, as it’s supposed to be comprised of seven members. Currently, Warwick Tax Assessor Ken Mallette, who sits on the Commission, said there are six seats filled.
Also, Cote said he recently contacted the governor’s office and was informed that there should be at least one member of the Commission from the Rhode Island Automobile Dealers Association. He wonders why that obligation has not been met.
“I implore you not to make any decisions on anything until the board is actually in accordance with the state law,” said Cote.
Following the meeting, Mallette, along with Linda Cwiek, chairwoman of the Commission and tax assessor of North Kingstown, spoke to a Beacon reporter and said that last year the Commission did, in fact, lower the value of vehicles, specifically those defined as classic cars, or older cars.
“This commission is looking at these values and we take this job seriously,” Mallette said. “We meet more than once a year – we meet several times a month, sometimes to go over the appeals, and we don’t take it lightheartedly. We will take these comments under advisement and we will release our findings at the appropriate time.”
According to Commission Clerk Jim Neary, a forum will be held in the near future.