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Lake group pushes bill requiring boat titles
Abandoned boats like this one that sat on Lathem Creek’s shoreline in February are often hard to remove because owners cannot be identified and held responsible. The Lake Lanier Association is pushing a bill that would require titles for boats, making it easier to find those owners. - photo by Erin O. Smith

Just last week, the Gainesville-based Lake Lanier Association sent an email blast with the subject line “Have you seen this houseboat?”

The email contains a couple of photos of a 43-foot 1970 Stardust, last seen at Sunrise Cove Marina around 2011.

“There is an issue with this houseboat, and the Lake Lanier Association would like to get in contact with the owner,” the organization states.

The association, which has worked to remove abandoned boats from the lake, is hoping passage of a House bill requiring boat titles will put muscle in the search for owners of such craft.

“Georgia is one of few states in the U.S. that doesn’t title vessels,” the organization says. “As a result, tracking ownership over the course of time, especially as a vessel changes owners, can be difficult.”

Under the current system, new boat owners pay a one-time sales tax at the time of purchase.

“In addition to that tax, I also pay annually an ad valorem tax on that personal property,” said Joanna Cloud, the association’s executive director. “It depends on the value of my boat and the county where the boat is located, but, for me, it works out to about $150 per year.”

Cloud said she pays a registration fee to the Georgia Department of Natural Resources once every three years to register her boat.

Under House Bill 356, new boat owners would pay a one-time 4 percent sales tax but no longer pay an annual ad valorem tax. Owners of existing boats would continue to pay ad valorem.

In both cases, boat owners would have to register their boat annually with their county tax commissioner’s office for the boat title — a $20 fee.

“This is not a new tax,” Cloud said “This is restructuring our current tax and our DNR registration system. The current DNR system is antiquated and not effective at tracking ownership.”

Also pushing the legislation is the Marine Trade Association of Metropolitan Atlanta.

Gainesville Marina’s Philip Burton, who has served as Marine Trade Association president, said he recently pulled a 16-foot boat from Lake Lanier without a current registration sticker, and DNR is trying to find the owner.

 “We need some kind of database to find owners or at least keep warm on their trail,” he said.

“This is a good bill,” Burton said. “It’s good for boat owners, lenders and dealers.”

Georgia ranks high in the nation in boat theft, partially “due to the nontitle issue,” according to the Lake Lanier Association.

The group further states: “Some lenders are less willing to finance boat sales in a nontitle state. That leaves fewer lenders willing to finance, which translates into less competition in this market and higher interest rates charged on boat loans to consumers.”

Hall County Tax Commissioner Darla Eden said she believes lawmakers want a “one-stop shop” for boat owners to register and title watercraft where they register and title motor vehicles — their county of residence.

“To accomplish this home convenience for the taxpayer, counties like Hall will lose traditional tax revenues to boat owners that live in other counties,” she said.

However, “we are working with the legislator/sponsors and related parties to help shape the bill into something that could be workable if we are handed the job of titling and registering boats,” Eden said.

State Rep. Carl Rogers, R-Gainesville, one of the bill’s sponsors, said the bill may get pushed into the next legislative session.

“Usually a bill of that depth takes a second year to develop,” he said, adding, however, that he believes the Lake Lanier Association and others should be able to track down owners of abandoned craft.

“We tried to do that bill 10 years ago and there was a lot of opposition to it,” Rogers said.

Burton, for one, is hopeful legislation will still emerge in the 2015 General Assembly, “even if we have to tweak it in the next session.”

“This is not the first time a titling bill has come up, but it is one of the best that has come along,” he said.

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