Getting tagged

by Lynn Lofton

Published: February 21,2005

For the most part, license plates for vehicles are no bargain in Mississippi. Yet, all operating vehicles must be registered and issued the appropriate tag in the owner’s county of residence. A law passed by the Legislature that went into effect in January 1995 removes some of the sting of that registration cost with a legislative tax credit. There is, however, a penalty for late tag renewals that can be a real burden.

“The legislative tax credit gives money back to the counties to reimburse them for the reduced car tag amount,” said Kathy Waterbury, director of communications for the State Tax Commission. “For late renewals, there is no penalty up to 15 days but there is a 5% penalty for each 30 days after that up to a maximum of 25%.”

Here’s the rub. Waterbury said that when the maximum 25% penalty is reached — roughly four to six months — the vehicle owner loses the legislative tax credit. It isn’t a new provision and went into effect in 1995 with the rest of the law.

Tax credit makes difference

DeSoto County tax collector Joey Treadway says losing that legislative credit can make a huge difference in the cost of a vehicle tag. “That’s a 60% increase that’s added to the cost of the tag on top of the penalty,” he said. “I feel sorry for anyone when that happens, but there’s not anything we can do about it.”

He says it doesn’t happen often, but he does see it sometimes with people moving into the state who aren’t accustomed to Mississippi laws. That can make the license plate cost for an average vehicle shoot up to $600 or $700 and higher for an expensive model.

In Madison County, tax collector Kay Pace says the maximum penalty and loss of legislative discount does not happen often but is catastrophic when it does. “It almost doubles the cost of a tag,” she said. “Most people usually see that their tag has expired before it reaches that.”

She’s seen the maximum penalty push tag costs to a hefty $8,000 and $9,000. On-time renewals generally run in the neighborhood of $400 or $500 and $2,000 for expensive models in Madison County.

“It’s really hard for us when these penalties occur,” she said. “We have such empathy with the taxpayer, but we’re bound by law to charge it. We have no choice. I hope some publicity helps because it’s no fun to tell people about penalty payments.”

Pace points out that state law does not mandate that tax collectors must mail tag renewal notices to residents. “It’s a courtesy, but I send them out because people expect them,” she said. “We usually send out five, six or seven thousand per month.”

Treadway also mails renewal notices and feels that although a few probably fall through the cracks the system is close to being accurate.

“We’ll sell 150,000 to 160,000 tags this year just here in DeSoto County so you can see there will be errors,” he said. “It’s a person’s responsibility to keep up with tag renewals, but 99% of people pay by bills, so it’s a good policy to send out notices. I hope we will continue to do it.”

But Waterbury says people may not receive these notices because addresses are changed and not updated. “That’s the biggest problem and mail may not be forwarded,” she said.

Adding to the cost

A violation issued by highway patrolmen for expired tags can also be added to the cost.
Warren Strain, director of public affairs for the Department of Public Safety, said the amount of a fine is left up to judges in the different counties.

“An expired tag is a violation and we do look for it,” he said. “Any time a violator is stopped, because it’s such an obvious thing, the patrolman will see it along with an inspection sticker. They see those things before they even interact with the driver or see a driver’s license.”

Rapid growth, more tags

With DeSoto County being one of the state’s fastest-growing counties, Treadway says he’s seen tag sales and renewals grow from approximately 2,300 a month to 12,000 a month in the 18 years he’s served as tax collector. In addition to the main location in the county seat of Hernando, he has satellite offices in Olive Branch and Southaven.

“The satellite offices do about 70% of the business, so you can tell where the growth is,” he said. “It hasn’t gotten to Hernando yet but it’s coming.”

That growth has allowed DeSoto County to keep its millage rate reasonable whereas places that don’t have a lot going on must have higher rates, he says. Two factors determine the cost of vehicle tags. One is the evaluation rate set by the State Tax Commission and the second is the millage rate set by each county’s board of supervisors.

Madison County is growing rapidly too and operates tax collector offices in Canton, Ridgeland and Flora. Pace has been tax collector since November 2001 but has worked in the office a total of 18 years.

“We’ve seen a big jump in the number of registered vehicles but definitely haven’t reached our potential yet,” she said. “When I first came to work, we hand wrote everything. Now we’re completely computerized.”

Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at mbj@msbusiness.com.

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