Buying a vehicle is obviously a tough decision. Not only must consumers worry about the upfront cost, but sales taxes and registration fees can also blind-side the unprepared. Fortunately for buyers in Nebraska, the state government helps take some of the mystery out of car shopping.

In October 2005, the Nebraska Department of Motor Vehicles launched the Online Vehicle Tax Estimator, an application that lets users preview what they're in for if they make the purchase. The site is a Web form where people submit vehicle information, including the vehicle's year, identification number, purchase date and price, and the buyer's city and county of residence. The application then returns an estimate of the taxes and fees for the vehicle. A back-end module performs the calculations based on users' entries. The process takes only a few minutes.

"It's key to make sure that the consumers or the people that we'll be interfacing with understand all of the expenses related with purchasing that vehicle, and the registration and titling of that vehicle," said Keith Dey, manager of the DMV's Information Systems Division. "By allowing them to go online and see what the personal property tax bill is estimated to be, it helps them have a clear picture and make better purchasing decisions."

Nebraska's motor vehicle tax and fee system was implemented in 1998. Before that, citizens paid a state property tax levied annually at registration time. The tax commissioner assigned a value based on the average sales price of each vehicle's make, year and model, and then local governments determined a vehicle's tax rate against that value.

Today citizens pay both the tax and fee during registration, and the tax proceeds are shared among the city, county and school system where the vehicle was registered. Taxes decrease on a vehicle during its first 14 years, and then the owner pays nothing. But fees must be paid throughout a vehicle's life. The taxes and fees vary depending on a vehicle's weight, type and the manufacturer's suggested retail price etc. They apply not only to cars, but also to trucks, farm vehicle sand motorcycle owners.

With all this information to consider, it's no surprise citizens have questions for their county treasurers and the DMV. But the online estimator spares them from asking as often and cuts down the workloads for state and county employees.

"We've tried to give the citizens the opportunity to access information 24/7," said Beverly Neth, director of the DMV. "They don't rely upon us being here to answer the phone [and it] frees up our staff."

In 2007, the Nebraska Office of the Chief Information Officer nominated the estimator for the year's best government-to-citizen application in the National Association of State Chief Information Officers (NASCIO) Recognition Awards. According to the submission, staff in county offices and the DMV reported receiving fewer calls from people requesting tax and registration estimates. County and state staff saved about 160 hours per month between the 2005 launch date and 2007.

The state receives comments and inquiries about the system through the DMV's Web site, Neth said.

"We've added a survey, so we're asking people, 'What kind of services are you accessing when you're on our Web site?' And lots of times, we're hearing, 'I use the Motor Vehicle Tax Estimator,' or 'I'm looking for it,'" she said.


How Things Came to Be

The application is managed by Nebraska Interactive, a subsidiary of NIC, a company that builds e-services for government clients. According to Nancy Beaton, NIC director of communications and investor relations, the company has relationships with 21 of 22 states that outsource their enterprise portals and is responsible for about 38,000 electronic applications. Nebraska

Hilton Collins, Staff Writer Hilton Collins  | 

Hilton Collins is a former staff writer for Government Technology and Emergency Management magazines.