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DRIVER'S ED | Your Wheels

Little-Used Smog Fund for Low-Income Drivers Due for Tuneup

April 29, 1999|RALPH VARTABEDIAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

California regulators have amassed a $20-million kitty to help poor motorists comply with smog laws, but the good intentions of government have received a cool reception.

The Bureau of Automotive Repair--a seemingly unlikely welfare agency--plans to try just a little bit harder to give away the money.

On Monday, BAR will open its offers of financial assistance to more consumers under a little-known program to help the poor get their vehicles' emission-control systems repaired so they can pass California's tough pollution tests.

But so far, just 72 people have asked for help. Clearly, BAR and the state Legislature had expected greater demand for the program.

The low demand is an embarrassment for state regulators also because of the funding source for the program: BAR gets the money from the $300-per-vehicle smog-impact fee it charges out-of-state motorists when they import cars into California.

A Superior Court judge has already ruled the fee unconstitutional, though California is still collecting it while it appeals the ruling.

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So what you have is an apparently unconstitutional tax being used to support a low-income assistance program that the poor don't seem to find much help.

Relatively few service stations participate in the program--just 104 garages, according to BAR's own Web site. It lists, for example, just one garage for Los Angeles, and it has a disconnected telephone number.

BAR spokesman Russ Heimerick said that, notwithstanding the Web site, there are 24 stations serving Los Angeles County. But he acknowledged that station owners have been reluctant to get involved because of potential payment problems.

"There is skepticism among some of the shop owners, because they think when the government gets involved it is like Big Brother," said Bill Edelbrock, an owner of Ron's Automotive Clinic in Long Beach, a participating garage. "But I think any business is good business."

BAR officials, however, emphasize the program's potential to cut pollution.

"The bottom line is to get the emissions reductions by getting efficient repairs on these cars," said bureau spokeswoman Tracey Weatherby.

To help spur demand for assistance, BAR is broadening the benefits. Under the current setup, low-income motorists pay the first $250 for emissions system repairs needed to obtain smog certificates for their vehicles, and the state pays the next $450.

The new rules will require that low-income motorists pay just $75 before the state's $450 of assistance kicks in. That should enable far more people to qualify for assistance.

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Whether BAR will do a good job of policing its program to prevent abuse is unclear, but it has set up a system with all the classic trappings of a welfare bureaucracy: forms and offices for reviewing everything.

How does BAR go about identifying the poor? Under the program, motorists with less than 175% of the federal poverty level qualify. That would be $29,000 in annual income for a family of four.

Individuals fill out applications and submit documentation proving their income. A special office in Sacramento reviews the applications for approval.

Motorists must submit proof of income, which can include letters from welfare agencies that indicate people are receiving benefits or a copy of an Internal Revenue Service 1040 tax return, for example. It isn't clear how BAR verifies whether a 1040 is legitimate or phony.

"We are not too worried about that," Heimerick said. "We will be auditing these on the back end to insure we don't have fraud."

Edelbrock said he generally gets authorization to perform repairs from Sacramento within 30 to 45 minutes of faxing an application to BAR.

He notes that the lower co-payment being instituted by BAR should help broaden the appeal of the program.

Although the average cost of repairing vehicles so they pass smog tests is $90, most low-income motorists own older cars that have received less maintenance. Edelbrock said the average cost of repairs done under the low-income program is about $400 to $500.

What will happen if the courts ultimately forbid the smog-impact fee that funds this program? BAR has a backup plan: Raise the smog certificate fee on every car from $8.25 to $10.25.

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Ralph Vartabedian cannot answer mail personally but will attempt to respond in this column to automotive questions of general interest. Write to Your Wheels, Business

Section, Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles, CA 90053. Via e-mail: ralph.vartabedian@latimes.com.

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