NBC 10 I-Team: Car tax relief elusive for most

When the car tax bill comes in the mail, some people see a valuation they believe is outrageous. Some appeal to the state, hoping for relief.

But an NBC 10 I-Team investigation found that for most people who appealed, things got worse not better.

Ed Sadowski bought the cheapest car he could find, a 22-year-old Honda Civic. But he'll still have to pay about $200 in taxes next year to drive his $500 clunker.

The state of Rhode Island told Sadowski his ancient hatchback was worth nine times more than the purchase price.

"According to the state, this is worth $4,600," Sadowski said. "I paid $500. I've got a bill of sale that says $500."

Making matters worse, this is his second Honda Civic. He sold his 1998 and bought the teal green 1992, trying to avoid car taxes altogether.

The state's value on the 1998 Civic is $3,900. The 1992 is worth $4,600. That means a car six years older is somehow worth $700 more.

"No one can explain to me how an older Civic is worth more than a newer Civic. Doesn't make any sense," Sadowski said.

The system doesn't make sense to other Rhode Island drivers either. Some appealed their cases directly to the state's Vehicle Value Commission.

The NBC 10 I-Team requested public records from the commission to review appeals filed in 2013 and 2014.

The results?

Of the 757 people who appealed, saying their cars were over-valued, only 33 had their cars' values "adjusted." But that doesn't mean they saved any money.

Twenty-four saw their cars' values increase after they appealed.

The NBC 10 I-Team found almost 75 percent of drivers who appealed actually saw their cars' values go up. Fighting back led to an ever bigger car tax bill.

One car was worth almost $4,000 more after the appeal. Another one was valued at $2,000 more.

Three people did see their car's values drop significantly, one by almost $6,000.

But the majority of those who appealed saw an increase in value, and they were probably sorry they asked.

"That's a shame," said state Rep. Joe McNamara, D-Cranston.

McNamara said it's time to scrap Rhode Island's car tax system and start over.

"The major problem is cities and towns and the state use the clean retail value," he said.

That's not the price you could actually get for your car, and state law gives the commission no leeway for a car's market value.

"On the best day of my car's life, I couldn't sell it for this money," McNamara said.

Sadowski filed his own appeal, hoping for a better outcome.

"This is falling on the poor, the low income and the seniors," Sadowski said.

The Vehicle Value Commission will consider Sadowski's case and others, and take comments from the public, at its next meeting Dec. 5.

But without changes from inside the State House, commissioners say there's almost nothing they can do.

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