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Contra Costa voters who read Measure G, a $1 annual car registration fee on the June 7 ballot, might be asking themselves what is the County Abandoned Vehicle Abatement Service Authority?
Don’t feel bad. We had the same question. We had never heard of the authority, which placed the measure on the ballot to continue funding for “removing and disposing of abandoned and wrecked vehicles.”
But the more we learned, the more it became clear that voters should junk the tax extension and disband the authority by rejecting Measure G.
It turns out that the authority, formed in 1991, is a mostly unaccountable group of local government managers with a self-interest in bolstering funding for their agencies. And the program they run, contrary to the ballot wording, usually doesn’t pay for removal and disposal of abandoned vehicles. Instead, the money it collects usually offsets the cost of county and city code-enforcement officers who investigate and process the abatement cases.
The cost of removing and disposing of the vehicles is usually borne by tow companies, which accept the abandoned vehicles as payment because they get value from the parts or recycling the materials.
Beyond that ballot deception are serious underlying problems in the program. After peaking in the 2016-17 fiscal year, the number of vehicle abatements dropped sharply in the nearly two years before the pandemic.
Meanwhile some cities have been collecting money from the program for years while hardly abating any vehicles. As a result, on a per-abatement basis, the amount they collect from the program is exorbitant.
We analyzed data provided by the authority for five years, ending with the 2020-21 fiscal year. It showed that El Cerrito collected about $144 and Concord collected $195 for every vehicle they abated while, at the other extreme, Orinda collected $8,750 and Walnut Creek collected $79,995 per vehicle.
And the notion that law-aiding car owners should foot the bill for those who abandon their vehicles is perplexing. If owners of abandoned vehicles cannot be forced to pay, then the cost should be paid by all taxpayers, not just car owners.
But the most ironic part of this program is that the authority will spend about $500,000 just to hold the countywide election on Measure G — this for a 10-year extension on a program that brings in only $1.1 million annually.
If city and county officials want to help jurisdictions that legitimately have a lot of abatements, they should devise a replacement program using existing funds that compensates fairly for clearing roads of abandoned vehicles.
First time on ballot
For three decades, Contra Costa’s vehicle-abatement program has operated under the public radar. Starting in the early 1990s, Contra Costa and about 30 other California jurisdictions, mostly counties, took advantage of state legislation allowing the formation of vehicle-abatement authorities.
Under the rules adopted by Contra Costa and the county’s now 19 cities, their program is administered by a seven-member governing board, comprised of a county staffer and six city staff representatives. There are no elected officials on the board and, hence, it lacks direct public accountability.
To pay for the abatement program, the DMV tacks $1 onto annual registration fees for most vehicles in the county and $2 for some commercial vehicles. After the state and county take about $60,000 for administration, the program is left with about $1.1 million to distribute each year. Half goes to the cities, and the county for unincorporated areas, based on population, and half based on the number of abandoned vehicles each jurisdiction clears off the streets.
The state requires renewal of the program by the county and cities every 10 years. Previously, that’s been done without voter participation. However, since the 2012 approval, county lawyers advised that renewals require voter approval because of a 2010 ballot measure that expands the types of fees that must go on the ballot. That’s why this time voters are being consulted.
So how has this program fared? County data for the past nine years shows it was going gangbusters, abating 7,273 vehicles at its peak in the 2016-17 fiscal year. But by 2018-19, that number had plummeted by more than half, to 3,330. The following year, which included four months of the pandemic emergency, the abatements had dropped much further, to 1,228.
Moreover, county data for the past five years shows that some cities have been collecting their share of the population-based funding even though they have abated almost no vehicles. The county data for the program indicates, for example, that Walnut Creek abated only two cars during that time and Orinda only five. That’s why the amount collected per abated vehicle is so high for some cities.
This program is broken. And the people running it are too removed from the voters to be motivated to fix it. Some of the 31 jurisdictions across the state with similar programs have opted to terminate them. Contra Costa should do the same.
Voters should reject Measure G.