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Chicago City Clerk Calls for Reforms of Vehicle Sticker Program

Anna Valencia proposed creating city sticker options so low-income drivers can afford to be in compliance and avoid costly tickets.

This story is a collaboration between ProPublica Illinois and WBEZ.

City Clerk Anna Valencia on Tuesday called for changes to Chicago’s vehicle sticker program to help low-income drivers, saying that “what has been done in the past hasn’t worked for all Chicagoans.”

Valencia’s proposals, while modest, aim to make it easier for motorists to comply with the city’s sticker requirements and avoid the costly tickets that come with being in violation — an initial $200 citation, that can rise to $488 with late penalties. The city issues more than 200,000 of the citations each year, and the debt from them has contributed to thousands of bankruptcies.

The proposals include a payment plan, of sorts, that would allow drivers to buy stickers for four-month periods at prorated prices; a limited program to waive late penalties; and a campaign to educate the public about the city’s sticker requirements.

“We want to help people come into compliance before they even get tickets,” Valencia told the Chicago City Council’s budget committee. “I’d rather do something than nothing to get people into compliance.”

Chicago City Clerk Anna Valencia (Elliott Ramos/WBEZ Chicago)

Valencia said her proposals were triggered by a joint ProPublica Illinois and WBEZ investigation this year that revealed how a 2011 decision to raise the cost of sticker citations from $120 to $200 led to more debt for drivers — but not much more revenue for the cash-strapped city. That investigation found black neighborhoods were hit with sticker tickets at a higher rate, per household, than other parts of the city.

A sticker costs between $88 and $139 a year, depending on a vehicle’s weight. The clerk’s office assesses a $60 penalty and backdates stickers that are purchased late so they don’t last a full year. Valencia’s plan would eliminate the late penalty and the practice of backdating stickers during a one-month “amnesty” period.

Revenue from sticker sales is supposed to fund road maintenance.

ProPublica Illinois reported in February that ticket debt sends thousands of drivers — disproportionately from low-income and black neighborhoods — into Chapter 13 bankruptcy to prevent their vehicles from getting booted by the city and having their licenses suspended. Ticket debt is a factor in about half the Chapter 13 bankruptcies filed in the Northern District of Illinois, making Chicago the nation’s capital for this type of consumer bankruptcy.

Valencia’s proposal, if approved by aldermen as part of the 2019 city budget, would go into effect sometime next year. According to the clerk’s office, upgrading technology to allow four-month stickers would cost about $125,000.

A spokesman for Mayor Rahm Emanuel was unavailable for comment and referred questions to the city’s Finance Department. In a statement, department spokeswoman Kristen Cabanban said, “We appreciate the Clerk’s thoughtful approach and are looking forward to working with her staff on the details of the program.”

Alderman Scott Waguespack, who represents the North Side’s 32nd Ward and leads the council’s Progressive Caucus, said the proposed reforms don’t go far enough. He suggested the city simply lower the cost of stickers for low-income drivers and reduce late penalties.

“We have to look at ways to start forgiving [ticket] debt and just clean the slate here with a lot of people,” he said. “Too many people are going into bankruptcy, by the thousands, and then they can’t contribute to Chicago in any other way.”

Lauren Nolan, director of research at the Woodstock Institute, a Chicago-based nonprofit that released a report on disparities in ticketing this summer, called Valencia’s proposals a “step in the right direction.”

“We are thrilled the city clerk is picking up this issue and thinking of creative, outside-the-box ways to address the negative impact of fees and fines in our communities,” Nolan said. “A lot more still needs to be done, though.”

Nolan called on the city to “audit its ticketing practices, address the disparate impacts on low-impact communities and communities of color, and address the fact that residents are still being pushed into debt over these tickets.”

Valencia said her staff is planning to study the impact of fines and fees that originate from the clerk’s office. She acknowledges, though, that “this is not the whole solution.”

The proposed reforms would launch as a two-year pilot program, and Valencia’s staff would analyze whether the reforms are “making the impact we hope it will be. Success to us is less tickets for people.”

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David Eads/ProPublica Illinois and Katlyn Alo/ProPublica Illinois

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Melissa Sanchez

Melissa Sanchez is a reporter at ProPublica Illinois who is focused on immigrants and low-wage workers.

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