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Cars that might have been donated for tax breaks instead turned in to dealerships

Charities that depend on vehicle donations for fund-raising are suffering under the popular Cash for Clunkers program, which gave rebates of up to $4,500 to people who traded in old gas-guzzlers for new, more fuel-efficient vehicles.

Rather than handing over running cars and trucks to nonprofit agencies and receiving small tax rebates, potential donors drove them into auto dealerships, where they reaped greater financial benefits.

The program ended Monday.

Clunker Philosophy

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The exact effect on Sonoma County charities is not yet known, but hundreds of cars that might otherwise have been donated to charities wound up with dealerships.

In a time when the recession and new tax laws are already cutting into fund-raising, the loss will be significant.

"It's a big hit," said Cindy Roach, development director for the Sonoma Humane Society, where car donations dropped in August. "It's on top of other losses that are very difficult to make up."

Over a one-month period, Cash for Clunkers ignited new car sales across the North Coast and the nation. It offered rebates of $3,500 and $4,500 to people who traded in running cars that were no more than 25 years old and got 18 miles per gallon or less, and bought new cars with improved efficiency.

The offer proved irresistible.

For the first time in months, dealers were swamped with customers and tired trade-ins piled up on back lots, waiting to have their engines disabled as required.

Although charities continued to receive car donations, they tended to be less valuable vehicles that didn't qualify for the clunkers program, said Pete Palmer, co-founder of Vehicle Donation Processing Center Inc.


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