October 25, 2012 | Volume 42, No. 43

Assembly floats vehicle tax plan

Besides casting ballots in the national election, residents on Nov. 6 get to weigh in on a Haines Borough motor vehicle registration tax, a proposal aimed at addressing junked and abandoned cars.

On Tuesday, the assembly voted 5-1 to introduce an ordinance for the tax, which would be collected by the state and raise $40,000 annually for the borough. Assemblyman Norm Smith was opposed.

As proposed, tax revenues initially would go toward setting up a small impound lot, buying a tow truck, and removing wrecks dumped on borough lands, said borough manager assistant Darsie Culbeck.

The amount of the tax, to be paid every two years when registering vehicles, would range between $16 for old cars and $122 for new ones. Eight percent of fees would be retained by the state for administration.

In an interview this week, Culbeck said most people would fall toward the lower end of the spectrum, as many vehicles in Haines are older.

“A $6 or $10 charge (per year) on your registration fee is not something you’re going to get too worked up about,” Culbeck said. “If you have a brand new car and it’s $60 bucks a year, well, you just bought a $40,000 truck, what’s $60 bucks on there?”

The program would also provide a secure place for impounded vehicles, which the borough is lacking, and ensure that cars get towed, which sometimes doesn’t happen when working with a local contractor, assembly members were told Tuesday.

Assemblyman Smith said the proposal would be unnecessary if the borough enforced existing code that limits townsite homeowners to two unregistered vehicles per lot. “The public doesn’t want to incur any further tax increase and I see this as a tax increase,” Smith said.

Mayor Stephanie Scott, however, said that the public was appreciative of a junk car collection last spring and understands that such measures cost money. As the state would collect the fee, no borough enforcement would be necessary, Scott said.

Member Joanne Waterman said her registration fee would go from $78 to $178, a jump she characterized as “a little stiff.” She said “the numbers need to be more reasonable and user-friendly.” The ordinance was referred to a meeting of the assembly’s Finance Committee 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 30.

For the program to go into effect in 2014, an ordinance for such a tax would have to be approved by the end of 2012, Culbeck said. Manager Mark Earnest said modifications to the fee schedule could be made at a later date.

Local vehicle registration taxes have been adopted by Anchorage, Bristol Bay, Juneau, Kenai Peninsula, Kodiak, Matanuska-Susitna, Sitka and the North Slope, according to the borough.

Junked cars and trucks ditched on undeveloped lands around the borough have been an issue for years, prompting occasional cleanups that occur with arrival of scrap metal barges. Borough officials and others have said the cars are an environmental hazard and eyesore.

The springtime success of a scrap barge program makes Culbeck hopeful the proposed program would be valued by the community.

“It was overwhelmingly appreciated. I got people on the street stopping me, calls, emails. People were psyched about it. What that tells me is that people want the junk car issues to be dealt with. And so this is a start at making that easier and better,” he said.

Though the borough would not begin receiving revenue from the tax until 2014, it could start spending the money it anticipates collecting if the ordinance is approved. Culbeck said the borough would probably get the ball rolling on the tow truck acquisition and construction of an impound lot for five or 10 cars before 2014.

A vehicle drain rack system, a larger impound lot, and possibly a car crusher may be pursued later, he said.

“Who knows what they will decide to do, whether they will go the whole distance and get a whole draining system,” Culbeck said. “I think probably we will because we’re beyond the day where you can just drain your motor oil on the ground. You have to do it correctly.”

The effort could grow to a program to process, store, and ship cars to Seattle when scrap metal prices are high, generating additional revenue for the borough.

Culbeck doesn’t expect the issue of junk and abandoned cars in Haines to be entirely solved any time soon, even with approval of the ordinance.

“It’ll be awhile before we’ve solved the problem,” he said. “The $40,000, if we had it every year for 10 years, we’d probably be pretty darn close to having all the infrastructure in place. But then you’re still going to have to deal with junking the cars, doing the work.”

Exemptions from the municipal tax include qualifying military personnel, senior citizens, and disabled persons.

The first public hearing on the proposed tax is Nov. 6.