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Vehicle Emission Cleanup Funds Largely Unclaimed

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Rarely is it so difficult for the government to get rid of money.

The state’s Bureau of Automotive Repair has a kitty of $100 million in pollution reduction funds that it is trying with all its might to give to qualifying California motorists.

Since the program’s 1999 launch, BAR has had to try and try harder still to get rid of the money, twice sweetening its offer to help California vehicle owners in the hopes of attracting more takers.

“We are trying to reach as many consumers as we can,” said Michael Lafferty, head of BAR’s consumer assistance programs.

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The bureau’s repair assistance program provides low-income motorists with up to $500 for repairs to their car’s emission systems if they fail the biennial smog check. The vehicle replacement program provides $1,000 to motorists who scrap qualifying cars that fail the biennial smog certification test.

BAR chief Douglas Laue said he hopes the $100-million fund will be depleted over the next four years--a problem if consumer participation doesn’t pick up.

Under the repair program, the vehicle owner must pay the first $20 for repairs before the state’s portion kicks in. To qualify, motorists must have an annual household income at or below 185% of the federal poverty guideline, or $32,653 for a family of four.

The program also will provide assistance to owners of specially targeted high-pollution vehicles, without respect to their income, after they pay a $100 co-payment. Owners of such vehicles receive a “smog-test only” notice with their vehicle registration renewals.

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About 7,400 consumers obtained assistance between the start of the current government fiscal year July 1, 2000, and the end of March this year. That’s something of a disappointment.

In the first eight months of the program, when BAR provided as much as $450 of assistance months after low-income motorists paid for the initial $250 in repairs, just 35 people obtained the repair assistance. The lackluster interest was an embarrassment because BAR was funding the program with receipts from a highly unpopular and regressive $300-per-car smog tax slapped on motorists moving into California. The tax, collected by the Department of Motor Vehicles, recently was ruled unconstitutional and most of it has been refunded.

But BAR got to keep its kitty for the assistance program, Laue said. In addition, it collects about $22 million per year from an annual $6 smog fee levied on owners of new cars for the first four years of ownership.

The theory behind all this effort is to provide BAR with enough money to cover repair assistance and vehicle retirement for four years or two cycles of biennial inspections, which should help clear the roads of the worst polluting cars.

“It is an environmental program but also an acknowledgment that the smog-check program does impact low-income motorists more than it impacts you and me,” Laue said. “This is a way to ease their burden.”

To drum up support for the program, BAR first lowered the co-payment to $75 for motorists to qualify for the $450 of assistance and then lowered the payment and raised the total--to the current $20 co-payment for $500 of assistance.

The sweeter offer seems to be generating more interest, but it’s not clear whether it will be enough to help BAR spend its money.

Laue said that in the first half of the fiscal year, BAR spent $1.25 million assisting owners of 4,000 cars--an average of $312.50 each.

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The vehicle retirement plan, the second program tapping into BAR’s $100-million account, pays $1,000 cash to motorists who volunteer to scrap vehicles that fail the biennial smog check. Cars are subject to the biennial inspection after they are 4 years old. (Cars older than model year 1973 are exempted from the smog-check program and don’t qualify for retirement buybacks.)

Once the state buys a car, it is sent to a salvage yard and crushed to ensure its removal from the highways. Information about the program is available at BAR’s Web site, https://www.smogcheck.ca.gov, or by calling (800) 952-5210.

In the first half of the fiscal year, BAR bought 3,000 cars, disbursing $3 million.

Thus, BAR’s two consumer-assistance programs paid out $4.25 million in the first half of the current fiscal year--an annual rate of about $8.5 million. At that rate, it would take BAR about 12 years to spend the $100 million. And that’s only if it stops collecting additional taxes.

But Laue said the full year will come in higher than $8.5 million because applications for assistance are ramping up and more cars are in the pipeline. Of course, with $22 million coming in every year, it’s going to have to get rid of the dough faster and faster. Laue figures if BAR doesn’t spend the money in the next four years, it will extend the program.

Nonetheless, it seems like an extraordinarily large pot.

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Ralph Vartabedian cannot answer mail personally but responds in this column to automotive questions of general interest. Please do not telephone. Write to Your Wheels, Business Section, Los Angeles Times, 202 W. 1st St., Los Angeles, CA 90012. E-mail: ralph.vartabedian@latimes.com.

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