Dealerships get reprieve on ‘clunkers’ deadline

Posted Aug. 25, 2009, at 12:05 a.m.

BANGOR, Maine — There is no way to find out exactly how many Mainers bought new cars or trucks under the “cash for clunkers” program, but it’s a sure bet that most of the dealers who processed or are processing the deals are sweating bullets.

The Car Allowance Rebate System, or CARS, program, roared out of the gate on July 24, giving customers a $3,500 to $4,500 rebate for trading in their gas guzzlers for more fuel-efficient models.

The catch is that many local car dealerships have yet to be paid, and the government’s Web site, which auto dealers must use to process the applications, keeps crashing.

“It’s horrible the way they’ve administered the program,” Steve Hartley, owner of Hartley’s in Newport, said Monday. “It’s a great big disaster for the dealerships.”

Citing an overloaded computer processing system, the Obama administration on Monday granted a request to extend the deadline for auto dealers to file transactions under the CARS program to noon today, while still requiring all sales transactions to be completed by the 8 p.m. Monday deadline.

Having to use the overworked Internet-based processing center is extremely frustrating, Hartley said.

“The system is down, and we still have more applications to process,” he said.

The small auto dealer said he has sold just under 20 trucks or cars under CARS, but has been paid by the federal government for only one of the rebates given to his customers.

“When all your cash is tied up with the federal government, it doesn’t help local business,” Hartley said.

With all but one of Hartley’s CARS applications still pending or in line to be filed, the car dealership is awaiting up to $90,000 from the federal program.

Larger dealerships are faring no better, Rick Varney of Varney GMC in Bangor said Monday. The Hogan Road dealership sold around 85 cars and trucks through CARS and so far has been reimbursed for only eight, he said.

“I stopped [selling vehicles under CARS] last Thursday just because of the problem getting the deals put in the computer program,” Varney said. “All my deals are put in there.”

Varney GMC is expecting between $269,500 and $346,500 from the federal government, depending on whether each “clunker” it turns in qualifies for a lower or a higher rebate.

“Did I sell a few more vehicles? Yes,” Varney said. “Whether it was a good program or not will depend on if I get paid.”

At the beginning of August, Jay Darling, president of Darling’s Bangor Ford, said about 70 cars or trucks had been sold under the cash for clunkers program. At that point, none of his applications had been approved and his dealership was awaiting between $245,000 and $315,000.

The Quirk dealerships in Bangor also sold a number of vehicles under the CARS rebate program, but that figure was not available on Monday. Down East Toyota on Wilson Street in Brewer decided not to participate in the program.

Hartley said Maine Bureau of Motor Vehicle employees have been very helpful with the pile of paperwork required to apply for the program, which depending on the deal, numbers between 12 and 15 pages, he said.

“They have done a really great job with helping the dealerships,” Hartley said.

Now that the historic auto-sales incentive program has ended, all local dealerships can do is wait for the check to arrive in the mail.

“If we all get paid, and nobody has to eat the money, it was a good program,” Varney said.

nricker@bangordailynews.net

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