A program credited with cutting car thefts in half across Texas may be on the chopping block.
The Texas Automobile Burglary and Theft Prevention Authority, created in 1991, pays for about 200 police officers statewide to focus on car-related crime prevention. Vehicle owners pay $1 a year on their insurance renewals to fund the program, which offers grants to cities and counties -- including Tarrant County.
In a proposal under consideration by state legislators, Texans would still pay the $1 a year but the program would be suspended and $18 million a year generated by the fee would go toward the state's budget crisis.
It's the latest bad news for the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles, which is also dealing with an expected $38 million budget shortfall for the next two years. The shortfall was caused by inaccurate revenue projections for new vehicle registration fees that are scheduled to take effect in September.
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Supporters of the theft prevention program say officers whose salaries are covered by the fund could lose their jobs. And they say Texas will again become a haven for theft rings.
Last year, about 76,000 cars and trucks were stolen in Texas -- compared with 164,000 in 1991.
"Any commander in the state can tell you, these funds keep a lot of chop shops at bay," said Tommy Hansen, a Galveston County Sheriff's Department lieutenant and past president of the International Association of Auto Theft Investigators.
DMV board Chairman Victor Vandergriff of Arlington said this week that he is optimistic the agency can work through its problems, just as others will. As the state government deals with a multibillion-dollar shortfall, lawmakers are weighing how much to slash from education and other programs. "We took a hit, as did any agency, but we're in pretty good shape," he said.
Auto theft prevention
Texas' ability to combat car theft is known worldwide, and 14 other states, three Canadian provinces and even foreign countries have copied the program, Hansen said.
Since 1991, the theft prevention authority has awarded $239 million in grants and recovered $11.6 billion in stolen property.
Cities throughout the Fort Worth area have aggressively sought the funds to combat auto burglary and theft. In April, for example, officials from Mansfield, Grand Prairie, Burleson, and Johnson and Ellis counties teamed up to apply for an $850,000 grant to combat a recent surge in car crimes. The money pays for an officer in each jurisdiction, two administrative positions, computers, equipment and office space.
In 2009, Tarrant County received $1.1 million to prevent car theft in the western Metroplex. Twelve employees in Tarrant, Johnson, Parker, Wise and other counties inspected salvage yards, conducted public awareness campaigns and engaged in other activities that resulted in the recovery of 576 vehicles, according to an authority report prepared for lawmakers.
In Fort Worth, the city's legislative team is opposing the suspension of the theft prevention program. Part of the Tarrant County grant provides 80 percent of the salaries for two Fort Worth officers, as well as overtime funds. In 2010 alone, Fort Worth police made 145 arrests for car crimes, including 98 for theft and 33 for vehicle burglary.
During a hearing this month, lawmakers on the Legislative Budget Board didn't detail why they recommended suspending the program and cutting five DMV positions in Austin.
Meanwhile, the DMV is dealing with unexpected complications related to a program that was meant to simplify the fees Texans pay each year to register their vehicles.
A new set of vehicle registration fees, approved by lawmakers in 2009, takes effect Sept. 1. The fees were meant to overhaul Texas' notoriously complicated system for calculating what motorists pay. The state now has about 1,600 fee categories, based on factors such as vehicle type and weight.
The new system simplified the fees to just 12 categories: one each for motorcycles/mo-peds, trailers, passenger vehicles and light trucks; and eight categories for large trucks and other heavy vehicles. It was designed to be a revenue-neutral change: While individual vehicle owners might pay slightly higher or lower fees, the state would receive about the same amount of money as in previous years.
The average fee for a passenger vehicle, for example, would increase slightly to $50.75 a year from $50.61, while the average fee for a small pickup would drop to $50.75 from $56.42.
But DMV officials now say the state overestimated vehicle registration fee revenue by $18.7 million a year. The original calculations were skewed by vehicle sales projections from 2007 -- before the economy sank -- and by the federal government's cash-for-clunkers rebates, which temporarily boosted auto sales.
Options for plugging the budget hole, which adds up to nearly $38 million over two years, include:
Raising the fee for light trucks by $3, so owners would pay an average of $53.75 a year -- still lower than the current fee.
Dipping into other government programs to make up the DMV shortfall.
Delaying the new fees and using the old system.
State Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, said lawmakers acted hastily in 2009 in passing the new fees.
"It was a late-night amendment put on a Senate bill," said Pickett, the former House transportation committee chairman.
He favors charging $58.50 a year for all passenger cars and light trucks, which would bring in an extra $142 million a year for the state. But other lawmakers frown upon raising vehicle registration fees.
Deanna Boyd contributed to this report, which includes material from the Star-Telegram archives.
Gordon Dickson, 817-390-7796