Air Board to decide if drivers ante up for smog fine

Air Board to decide if drivers ante up for smog fine »Play Video
Motorist are seen Wednesday on Highway 99 in Bakersfield.
BAKERSFIELD, Calif. -- Drivers in most areas of Kern County could be forced to cough up millions of dollars in fines for the San Joaquin Valley's dirty air.

On Thursday, the Valley Air Board will decide whether to ask for an extra vehicle registration fee to cover penalties for missing a clean air deadline.

"We're essentially dealing with a ridiculous federal mandate that in our view doesn't make sense," Seyed Sadredin told Eyewitness News by phone from Fresno on Wednesday.

He's the executive director for the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District. Sadredin said the Valley exceeded the limits for ozone, failing to meet the federal Clean Air Act.

The district report says in 2010 the Valley went over the one-hour limit for ozone seven times.

The law requires that in "non-attainment" areas, businesses should pay penalties. The San Joaquin Air Board has come up a plan to instead collect the required $29 million through fees on cars and pickup trucks.

"Our argument is it's immoral to collect this from poor people," Tom Franz told Eyewitness News. "It's not right to put the blame on motorists alone." Franz is a member of Association of Irritated Residents, or AIR.

"We do smog checks, we pay for all this equipment on our vehicles that the federal government regulates," Franz said. He thinks an extra fee on vehicle registration will be hardship in the current tough economic times.

But, that's the argument the air district makes for not making Valley companies pay the fines.

"Imposition of (these fees) on Valley businesses will result in a significant blow to the Valley's fragile economy," reads the air district report.

The district says businesses have already put on the best possible smog-cutting technology, and have reduced their emissions by 80 percent. Fanz thinks there's more companies can do. He also disputes the district's position that cars and trucks now produce 80% of the emissions that cause smog.

On Thursday, the air board will get three recommendations. They'll consider a $10 a year fee on registration, $12 a year with $6 increases in two following years up to a total of $24 a year, or starting with a yearly fee of $24.

"I think there's a lot of bigger polluters than the individuals," driver Janet Garcia said. She doesn't like the idea of picking up the tab for the penalty.

"They shouldn't tax the people," Leo McNeal agreed, "I think they should go after the people that make the money, the big corporations."

The air district report says if businesses pay the $29 million, that money will go to the federal government and not stay in the local area. They say if drivers pay the registration fee, that money can be kept in the Valley and used for smog-fighting.

Their plan has a long list for possible grants, with the highest amounts of funds targeted to things like replacing trucks and school buses, mass transit, and replacing off-road farm equipment.

Sadredin said the district also wants to fight the Federal law that requires the penalties.

"Our preferred option would be for the Federal government to simply revoke this ridiculous mandate," Sadredin said. "We don't believe anyone in the Valley should be subject to this penalty."

He said if the San Joaquin Air Board approves one of the options for drivers to pay the fee, the district has to develop regulations to implement it, then the plan has to be reviewed at the state and federal level

As long as the law is in place, Sadredin thinks the best plan is the vehicle registration fee. At $10 a year, he said that's about 80 cents a month for Valley families.

"It's more bearable in this tough economy than $29 million in penalties on businesses that are already on the verge of going out of business," he said.

Drivers are not convinced. Carlos Flores looked at his car registration, it keeps getting more expensive every year. He doesn't like the thought of another fee tacked on.

"It's awful," Flores said. "Aren't we in a recession?"