Service station owner Paul Ashton paid off his $20,000 tune-up and emissions analyzer in December. But he didn't have much time to enjoy the relief of retiring a debt.
This past week, he had to order a new emissions analyzer mandated by the state and federal governments last year to bring more accuracy and uniformity to the emissions testing program in Salt Lake, Utah and Davis counties."It will cost about $12,000, not including the sales and maintenance contract," Ashton said. "Now, I also have a machine that still works that I can't use."
But the problem isn't whether Ashton needed the new analyzer - it's who will pay for it, him or his customers.
That was the issue Ashton, who is also president of the Utah Petroleum Retailers Organization, and others in his organization brought to Salt Lake County health officials Thursday. They met informally to discuss how the new exhaust analyzers that must be in place by July will affect pocketbooks.
Although the final figure is subject to public hearings, Salt Lake County has considered increasing the test fee, which is currently $9, to $12. Utah County will wait until after public hearings before determining a fee. Davis officials weren't available for comment Thursday.
Ashton's organization proposes a $15 limit on the fee.
In a letter to car mechanics, the county said the new analyzers will satisfy both state and federal regulators, who have threatened to centralize the program and mandate the government to conduct the test instead of a host of private businesses.
The state wants uniformity among the three counties, so that someone living in Davis County and working in Salt Lake County can have the test done in either county. The federal government wants more accuracy and to reduce the potential for cheating.
The new computerized analyzer service stations now must buy will accomplish both tasks, said James E. Brande, director of the county's Bureau of Air Pollution Control.
Ashton agrees that the new machine is better than the old ones, where a mechanic made the final judgment. The computerized analyzer won't print out a certificate unless the vehicle passes, and any tampering will be easily detected by county audits.
But unless service stations can charge a fee that will pay off the machine and allow for a reasonable profit, only a few large garages will be able to perform the service.
"If you aren't in the emissions testing business, then sooner or later you are out of business. It's just the first step toward not being there for your customers," Ashton said in an interview. He noted 80 percent of those in his organization offer the service and their customers rarely go to two separate places for a safety inspection and emissions test.
Salt Lake County air quality specialist Richard Valentine said officials are concerned that if the fee is too high consumers will be gouged and shops will crop up that only perform emissions tests.
But Ashton contends that the approved fee will only be an upper limit and if more people get into the business the better the chances are of the market driving the price down below the limit and eliminating "fast-lane" testers.
Mechanics don't want the price too low, however, particularly those who don't do a lot of emissions testing. Ashton said that once the mechanic is paid and money is set aside to pay off the machine, the profit left can amount to a couple of dollars or less.
And he warned consumers against garages that would charge substantially less. He said a dishonest mechanic will find something to charge the customer for to make up the difference.
"They will have to make it up somewhere," he said.