It sure must be cozy out in the woods of Jefferson, Maine.
That’s where, on a shady lot near Damariscotta Lake State Park, Providence residents have registered at least 200 personal vehicles.
Pull back the lens and the problem is even larger. Providence police have identified a total of 4,900 vehicles, trailers, and motorcycles that the Maine Bureau of Motor Vehicles said carry Rhode Island addresses, including more than 430 in Providence, said Providence police Major Michael E. Correia.
The practice is a wink-and-nod method for some Rhode Islanders, and other out-of-staters, to get out of paying comparatively higher sales and excise taxes and car insurance.
Providence police Officer Mac Field discovered the scheme last spring, when he noticed a growing number of Maine license plates on vehicles parked all around the city, Correia said. After collecting a list from Maine of the thousands of vehicles with Rhode Island addresses, Field began investigating the vehicles owned by those with Providence addresses. The vehicles’ owners give their addresses when they applied online for Maine registrations so they could get their license plates mailed to them.
State law requires Rhode Island residents to register their vehicles in Rhode Island. By law, a vehicle that “lives” more than 30 days, parked or garaged, in Rhode Island must be registered there.
Maine, however, allows anyone to register a vehicle, regardless of residency status. It was a law created, ostensibly, to allow those with second homes to register a vehicle there — and it also makes extra money for the state and communities in taxes.
In Providence, the practice doesn’t just get residents out of paying taxes, it helps them avoid paying tickets, too. Violations of the city’s automated red-light cameras and speed cameras are mailed to the address on the registration, which, by Rhode Island law, is supposed to be the “true” address of the vehicle.
In reality, hundreds of tickets went up to Maine, to addresses hours away from Rhode Island. Providence police are investigating how many are unpaid because the owners don’t actually live there.
“It’s human nature,” Correia said. “If you can get away with it, that’s enough for people to go down that route.”
The Globe was not given access to the review by the Providence police, which they say is part of an investigation. Correia said this week that police are checking the validity of the Maine registrations and then will establish a way to bill an actual address for the unpaid tickets. Correia said the department is also determining how to tackle the larger and more complicated issue of so many out-of-state registrations.
It’s a chronic problem for every municipality, said Paul Grimaldi, spokesman for the Rhode Island Department of Revenue, which oversees the Division of Motor Vehicles.
“Anyone who is registering [out of state] is forcing you and I to pay more taxes,” Grimaldi said. “And, from a security perspective, it’s safer for the police to know when they stop a vehicle, the person driving it is operating legally and appropriately and lives where they say they live.”
The Maine Department of the Secretary of State confirmed that there are hundreds of vehicles with Rhode Island addresses and active Maine registrations.
Most of the vehicles in Providence that have Maine plates go back to an address at 94 Waldoboro Road, in Jefferson, Maine — a town with a total population of roughly 2,400 people.
The property is the home of the STAAB Agency, one of the third-party agents that conducts online registrations for the Maine Department of Motor Vehicles.
The third-party system was set up to register fleets of interstate commerce trailers, but the agents also offer the service for individual automobiles, motorcycles, and campers. On its website, the agency promises quick service and states that most of its customers are from outside of Maine. Shirley St. Pierre, the agency’s owner, declined to comment.
Maine has long been known for wooing out-of-state truck companies to register there, offering an online process that’s convenient for companies with large fleets of trucks and is less expensive.
Out-of-state registrations are a money-maker for Maine. The state collected $524,141 in nonresident excise taxes in fiscal year 2018, said Kristen Muszynski, spokeswoman for the Maine Department of the Secretary of State, which oversees the Bureau of Motor Vehicles.
It’s hard to calculate how much money should have gone to Rhode Island cities and towns.
While the state has a program to verify that vehicles have insurance, there’s no easy method to determine each vehicle’s true “home,” Grimaldi said.
“It would be very difficult for the state of Rhode Island to track down every improperly registered vehicle,” he said.
As Providence determines its next move, Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt of Woonsocket has already taken action.
As a state representative, she pushed through changes in state law to clarify that vehicles parked in driveways, garages, and parking lots — not just along the road — had to be registered in Rhode Island. That made it easier for police to crack down on scofflaws, she said.
“Quite frankly, this is something the residents and taxpayers want. It’s a complaint I often hear from residents,” Baldelli-Hunt said. “For every car owned by someone who lives in the city and doesn’t pay taxes, that’s an impact on every person who does pay taxes.”
After becoming mayor, she directed Police Chief Thomas F. Oates III to do something about the problem. The culprit in Woonsocket wasn’t a wooded lot in Maine, but more often the border towns a few miles away in Massachusetts.
Oates said he worked with the Rhode Island Traffic Tribunal and came up with a plan. While on nightly patrol, the police checked their posts for parked vehicles with out-of-state plates. Those that were consistently “home” in Woonsocket over a period of 30 days received a summons to court and were advised to pay their taxes, he said.
Woonsocket police have conducted three sweeps since April 2018 and have issued about 120 summonses.
Oates said many vehicle owners were moving from just over the state line and keeping their old address or using a post office box in Massachusetts where they benefited from a cheaper tax bill.
Massachusetts car taxes are limited to $25 per $1,000 assessed value. Woonsocket, on the other hand, is $46.58 per $1,000 of assessed value, with an exemption for the first $2,000. It drops to $35 on July 1.
The crackdown is helping the city collect the taxes it is owed. The 85 vehicles caught in the first two sweeps generated $13,000 in excise taxes, said Woonsocket tax assessor Elyse Pare.
When news of the first sweep made headlines last year, residents were thrilled, Baldelli-Hunt said. Some called in their own reports of out-of-state plates in their neighborhoods.
Baldelli-Hunt realized she wasn’t the only one who was bothered.
“My feeling is people with out-of-state plates are paying taxes to the state they don’t live in, but we are repairing the roads they drive on, sweeping the streets they drive on, and plowing the streets they drive on,” she said.
Suspected scofflaws end up facing Judge Lillian Almeida at the state’s Traffic Tribunal, where they can either get their registrations in order or face her questions and a fine.
“She says, ‘Prove it,’ ” Traffic Tribunal administrator Dennis Gerstmeyer said of Almeida’s typical demands. The judge wants to see paid property taxes, proof of employment, even a photo of the property, he said.
No word on whether anyone has presented a photo of a certain lot in Jefferson, Maine.
Amanda Milkovits can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org