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State makes big fuss over local couple’s vegetable oil car fuel

By HUEY FREEMAN – H&R Staff Writer
http://www.herald-review.com/

DECATUR – David and Eileen Wetzel don’t get going in the morning quite as early as they used to.

So David Wetzel, 79, was surprised to hear a knock on the door at their eastside home while he was still getting dressed.

Two men in suits were standing on his porch.

“They showed me their badges and said they were from the Illinois Department of Revenue,” Wetzel said. “I said, ‘Come in.’ Maybe I shouldn’t have.”

Gary May introduced himself as a special agent. The other man, John Egan, was introduced as his colleague. May gave the Wetzels his card, stating that he is the senior agent in the bureau of criminal investigations.

“I was afraid,” Eileen Wetzel said. “I came out of the bathroom. I thought: Good God, we paid our taxes. The check didn’t bounce.”

The agents informed the Wetzels that they were interested in their car, a 1986 Volkswagen Golf, that David Wetzel converted to run primarily from vegetable oil but also partly on diesel.

Wetzel uses recycled vegetable oil, which he picks up weekly from an organization that uses it for frying food at its dining facility.

“They told me I am required to have a license and am obligated to pay a motor fuel tax,” David Wetzel recalled. “Mr. May also told me the tax would be retroactive.”

Since the initial visit by the agents on Jan. 4, the Wetzels have been involved in a struggle with the Illinois Department of Revenue. The couple, who live on a fixed budget, have been asked to post a $2,500 bond and threatened with felony charges.

State legislators have rallied to help the Wetzels.

State Sen. Frank Watson, R-Greenville, introduced Senate Bill 267, which would curtail government interference regarding alternative fuels, such as vegetable oil. A public hearing on the bill will be at 1 p.m. today in Room 400 of the state Capitol.

“I would agree that the bond is not acceptable, $2,500 bond,” Watson said, adding that David Wetzel should be commended for his innovative efforts. “(His car) gets 46 miles per gallon running on vegetable oil. We all should be thinking about doing without gasoline if we’re trying to end foreign dependency.

“I think it’s inappropriate of state dollars to send two people to Mr. Wetzel’s home to do this. They could have done with a more friendly approach. It could have been done on the phone. To use an intimidation factor on this – who is he harming? Two revenue agents. You’d think there’s a better use of their time,” Watson said.

The Wetzels, who plan to speak at a Senate hearing in Springfield today, recalled how their struggle with the revenue department unfolded.

According to the Wetzels, May told them during his Jan. 4 visit that they would have to pay taxes at either the gasoline rate of 19½ cents per gallon or the diesel rate of 21½ cents per gallon.

A retired research chemist and food plant manager, Wetzel produced records showing he has used 1,134.6 gallons of vegetable oil from 2002 to 2006. At the higher rate, the tax bill would come to $244.24.

“That averages out to $4.07 a month,” Wetzel noted, adding he is willing to pay that bill.

But the Wetzels would discover that the state had more complicated and costly requirements for them to continue to use their “veggie mobile.”

David Wetzel was told to contact a revenue official and apply for a license as a “special fuel supplier” and “receiver.” After completing a complicated application form designed for businesses, David Wetzel was sent a letter directing him to send in a $2,500 bond.

Eileen Wetzel, a former teaching assistant, calculated that the bond, designed to ensure that their “business” pays its taxes, would cover the next 51 years at their present usage rate.

A couple of weeks later, David Wetzel received another letter from the revenue department, stating that he “must immediately stop operating as a special fuel supplier and receiver until you receive special fuel supplier and receiver licenses.”

This threatening letter stated that acting as a supplier and receiver without a license is a Class 3 felony. This class of felonies carries a penalty of up to five years in prison.

On the department of revenue’s Web site, David Wetzel discovered that the definition of special fuel supplier includes someone who operates a plant with an “active bulk storage capacity of not less than 30,000 gallons.” Wetzel also did not fit the definition of a receiver, described as a person who produces, distributes or transports fuel into the state. So Wetzel withdrew his application to become a supplier and receiver.

Mike Klemens, spokesman for the department of revenue, explained that Wetzel has to register as a supplier because the law states that is the only way he can pay motor fuel tax.

But what if he is not, in fact, a supplier? Then would he instead be exempt from paying the tax?

“We are in the process of creating a way to simplify the registration process and self-assess the tax,” Klemens said, adding that a rule change may be in place by spring.

David Wetzel wonders why hybrid cars, which rely on electricity and gasoline, are not taxed for the portion of travel when they are running on electrical power. He said he wants to be treated equally by the law.

David Wetzel, who has been exhibiting his car at energy fairs and universities, views state policies as contradicting stated government aims.

“You hear the president saying we need to reduce our dependence on foreign oil,” Wetzel said. “You hear the governor saying that.”

State Rep. Bob Flider, D-Mount Zion, also plans to support legislation favoring alternative fuels.

“I’m disappointed that the Illinois Department of Revenue would go after Mr. Wetzel,” Flider said. “I don’t think it is a situation that merits him being licensed and paying fees.

“The people at the department of revenue apparently feel they need to regulate him in some way. We want to make sure that he is as free as he can be to use vegetable oil. He’s an example of ingenuity. Instead of being whacked on the head, he should be encouraged.”

Huey Freeman can be reached at hfreeman@herald-review.com or 217-421-6985.

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