Eligible Westminster residents who buy a car from qualifying dealerships in town can get a $500 rebate from the city starting in April, a program that city officials say would encourage people to shop locally. 

City Councilmembers approved renewing the subsidy by a 4-1 vote at a late October meeting, with Councilmember Carlos Manzo dissenting, saying that the previous program should be further examined before approving it for another five years. 

His colleagues said the program had been a success, while some residents who spoke in opposition to the program during the public hearing contended it was a poor use of taxpayer money.

Editors’ Note: This dispatch is part of the Voice of OC Collegiate News Service, working with student journalists to cover public policy issues across Orange County. If you would like to submit your own student media project related to Orange County civics or if you have any response to this work, contact Collegiate News Service Editor Vik Jolly at vjolly@voiceofoc.org.

Westminster is not the only Orange County city to have a car rebate program. Santa Ana, Garden Grove, and Placentia all offer similar $500 incentive programs for their residents. 

Westminster’s original program ran from 2017 to May 2022. It offered a $500 rebate to residents who purchased a new vehicle from participating dealerships within the city. 

Under the new program, purchasing a used car – at a minimum price of $25,000 – will also trigger eligibility for the rebate, according to the approved meeting minutes. New cars do not have to meet a minimum price threshold to be eligible for the rebate.

The previous program had originally approved rebates for purchases of new cars only. 

However, according to City Manager Christine Cordon, oversight of the program allowed rebates to be applied to used vehicles as well. 

The new vehicle rebate program has a budget of $600,000 per year for five years, for a total of $3 million, according to a city staff report.

With Westminster facing the possibility of a bankruptcy, residents in November voted on a sales tax ballot measure to bolster city revenues and prevent cuts to city services 

Some residents who voiced concerns about the new spending during the October public hearing asked why the city was proposing a program that would deplete $3 million from the city’s economic development fund, rather than investing the money to create passive income for the city.

Passive income is income that is acquired automatically with minimal labor to earn or maintain, similar to a rental property that generates money.

“Between the dealership and city staff, Westminster citizens were robbed,” resident Camilla Overbeek told the council. “If there are any representatives here in the chambers tonight from Elmore, Honda, Lexus, shame on you. Westminster residents are not your piggy bank.” 

Resident Amy Walsh also voiced her disapproval of the program.

“I cannot believe the rest of the council members are not more upset about what has gone on over the past five years,” she told the council. 

Walsh referred to the previous program that allowed dealerships to apply the rebates to used vehicles despite only new vehicles being approved for the rebate.

No residents at the meeting spoke in favor of the rebate.

Councilmember Manzo expressed concerns about the program and attempted multiple times to get his fellow council members to agree to a thorough analysis of the previous car rebate program before approving the new one. 

“We need to do a better job to be as transparent as possible,” Manzo said. “The previous proposal was an utter failure. And when you look at it …  it looks like our residents have been taken advantage of. And here we are doing the same thing again.”

Mayor Tri Ta expressed support for the program. 

“Actually, I think that, based on my experience, we had this program for the last five years, and this is really beneficial to the community. All the money, at the end of the day, goes back to the residents,” Ta said. 

Councilmember Chi Charlie Nguyen said he thinks the program is advantageous for the city.

“The reason I say that is we want the people from the city of Westminster to shop in the city of Westminster,” he said.

Cordon, the city manager, told the council that local dealerships expressed interest in renewing the program for another five years. 

John Sackrison, the executive director of Orange County Automobile Dealers Assn., voiced support of the program when addressing the council during the public hearing. 

“This is a benefit to the residents of Westminster. 100% of the funds go to the residents,” he said.

The rebate will also be available to Westminster businesses, not just city residents, according to the staff report.

The rebate will be applied to the price of the car at the time of final purchase/lease of the vehicle. Reimbursement will then be offered to the dealerships upon proper submission of all required documents within 30 days of the request, the staff report said.

The vehicle incentive program is scheduled to start in April and will continue through April 2028.

Since you've made it this far,

You are obviously connected to your community and value good journalism. As an independent and local nonprofit, our news is accessible to all, regardless of what they can afford. Our newsroom centers on Orange County’s civic and cultural life, not ad-driven clickbait. Our reporters hold powerful interests accountable to protect your quality of life. But it’s not free to produce. It depends on donors like you.

Join the conversation: In lieu of comments, we encourage readers to engage with us across a variety of mediums. Join our Facebook discussion. Message us via our website or staff page. Send us a secure tip. Share your thoughts in a community opinion piece.