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A Times Editorial

On car tent sale credibility and county revenue

© St. Petersburg Times
published February 17, 2002

We're not exactly sure who would prefer to buy their car from a dealer who pitches a tent on the side of the road. But we acknowledge the market exists, because more than 600 used automobiles were sold by out-of-county dealers at so-called "tent sales" last year.

That pace of commerce may not seem like much, but it has been enough to catch the attention of the Citrus County Auto Dealers Association, a partnership of 11 local dealers who are upset about the intrusion on their turf. They want the County Commission to pass a law that would regulate the out-of-county dealers, and perhaps discourage them from bringing their road shows here.

The association's motivation is obvious; its members don't want the competition. But buried in their self-interest are some complaints that have merit, and ones the commission could easily address.

One is a matter of lost income for the public. When a local dealer who is licensed in Citrus County sells a car, the county collects part of the registration and tag fees. But if an out-of-county dealer sells a car here, those fees go back to the county where the dealer is licensed. That's not ideal, but it's reasonable because Citrus County dealers have the same opportunity to send revenue back to their home county, either by selling cars in other counties or by cutting prices and selling more of them here.

However, it makes sense that the county government where the transaction originates should be able to glean some bit of revenue. The easiest, and most equitable, way to do that would be for the county to impose permit fees that are relative to the number of cars offered for sale, the area of land for which the permit is issued, and the duration of the sale.

The Citrus auto dealers suggested $10,000 for a temporary license to conduct a sale, and a $100 fee for each car sold. Those suggestions may be unrealistic. The price is so prohibitive that a court likely would rule it unreasonable.

Beyond income, the County Commission could follow the lead of some other counties who have already passed laws to regulate roadside sales, including merchandise other than autos. For instance, the county could limit temporary sales to commercial areas, such as parking lots, where the items being sold are the same use or related to the business already established on the lot.

In addition, the county could limit the number of temporary permits it grants each applicant to a certain number per year, or a certain number of days per year. For instance, the county could issue two permits per calendar year, but not to exceed a total of 10 days.

The county also could legitimately charge transient dealers an administrative fee for reviewing the site plans, the dealers' licenses and inspecting the premises to ensure health and safety codes are met.

If out-of-county sellers satisfy the requirements of the new ordinance, it will infuse credibility into their operation and revenue into county coffers. In addition, the competition it creates with local dealers might even result in savings for car buyers.

But the public should never overlook the reality that the traveling salesmen and women are peddling a product of unknown origin for profit. As always, the mantra for consumers should be caveat emptor, or, translated from the Latin, buyer beware.

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