Tax assessor, residents keep close eye on car tag debate

Published 5:00 am Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Lincoln County Tax Assessor Nancy Jordan is quite familiar withthe potential consequences of an under-funded car tag creditprogram, and not just because she heads up the tax office.

If the Legislature fails to plug the Legislative Tag CreditProgram’s $25 million shortfall by the state tax commission’s June1 deadline, tax assessors – like many other vehicle owners – willsee “dramatic” increases in car tag prices.

As a county resident, it costs Jordan $258.06 to purchase a tagfor her 2008 Chevrolet Impala with credits from car tagprogram.

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If no credit is forthcoming, however, her tag price willincrease to $535.37. If Jordan lived in the Brookhaven SeparateSchool District, her Impala’s tag would cost $308.17 with thecredit and $585.48 without.

But the real financial burden will fall on those living withinthe city limits, where the millage rate – which is used toconfigure tag prices – is highest. In addition to county and cityschool district property taxes, Brookhaven residents also payproperty taxes to support city government operations.

A 2008 Chevrolet Tahoe, an SUV popular among Brookhavenites, isalready an expensive vehicle to buy a tag for, with the pricestanding at $761.29. With no assistance from the credit program,the Tahoe’s tag cost will increase to four digits at $1,210.75.

“It would really be a burden on the people of Lincoln County forthis to happen, and we’re hoping it won’t,” Jordan said. “But ifadditional funds are not provided, we face higher car tags inJuly.”

Jordan said the car tag credit program may not shut downcompletely, but instead send a lesser rebate amount to counties.That option would still be a costly one for Lincoln County, shesaid, which issues around 37,000 tags per year and absorbsapproximately $260,000 in car tag credit funds each month, for anannual total of more than $3 million.

“I’ve worked here when we didn’t get legislative credit, buttimes weren’t as hard then,” Jordan said. “It would be awful forthe taxpayer to have this taken away now.

“Everybody needs to contact their legislators and let them knowhow they feel about it,” she continued. “Hopefully, they can worksomething out to keep us from losing it.”

The program isn’t lost, but recent events in the Legislature aremaking tax assessors and vehicle owners nervous. Lawmakersadjourned for at least 30 days last week with no funding solution,leaving only 30 days to fix the problem when they return in earlyMay.

Senators want to use revenue from a proposed cigarette taxincrease to plug the program, but House negotiators say that methodwon’t generate the necessary funds in time for the tax commissiondeadline, favoring a deficit appropriation instead.

The credit program’s inadequacy is tied directly to the state’seconomy. The program is funded by new car sales, which are downdramatically.

The possibility of increased tag prices is not sitting well withcounty residents, especially those who are still adjusting to thestate’s comparatively high prices.

Harlon Jordan, who moved to the county from Louisiana in 2000,joked he might have to fire up his “hay-burner, Ole Betsy” – a muleand wagon.

“It’s almost $300 just to drive it for one year,” he said of his2009 Dodge Ram, which he purchased a new tag for Tuesday morningfor $282. “It’s just a half-ton truck. I could understand it if itwas a big one, a commercial truck to haul stuff in. But this justhauls me around.”

Another Louisiana transplant, Mike Reeds, is hoping his vehicledepreciates if the credit program breaks down.

“By then it won’t be new, hopefully,” he said.

Louis Delaughter doesn’t like the idea of buying tags for his2006 Chevrolet truck, a vehicle type that generally holds a highvalue for a long time. Looking at his tag receipt, he estimated ano-credit price of close to $400.

“It’s a big deal – it’s taking money out of my pocket,” hesaid.