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Chicago City Council Approves Ticket and Debt Collection Reforms to Help Low-Income and Minority Motorists

The measures, which were prompted by a ProPublica Illinois and WBEZ Chicago investigation, are scheduled to take effect by mid-November.

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This story is a collaboration between ProPublica Illinois and WBEZ Chicago.

The Chicago City Council on Wednesday overwhelmingly approved an overhaul of its punitive ticketing and debt collection system, including an end to the suspension of driver’s licenses over unpaid parking tickets.

The reforms begin to deliver on Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s campaign promise to stop balancing the budget on the backs of the poor with aggressive fines and fees, an issue that gained attention last year as a result of investigations by ProPublica Illinois in collaboration with WBEZ Chicago.

The investigations, which showed how unpaid tickets have sent tens of thousands of black and low-income motorists into bankruptcy, were amplified by advocates and community groups that mobilized to persuade city and state legislators to address the effects that ticketing has on low-income and minority communities.

With Wednesday’s 49-1 vote, Chicago becomes the largest U.S. city to enact major reforms to its system of parking fines and fees. City officials, who have estimated the cost at $15 million in lost revenues next year, say more changes are coming.

Lightfoot said the reforms, which are scheduled to take effect by Nov. 15, touch “thousands of Chicago families, moving us away from funding our city through an old regressive system.”

“Cook County has the highest [number of] Chapter 13 bankruptcy filings in the country and a huge percentage of those filings relate to debt people owe to the city of Chicago,” she said after the vote. “So we are working hard to make sure that we relieve that burden and give people their cars back and give them an opportunity to participate in the economy.”

In addition to immediately ending its decades-old practice of seeking license suspensions over unpaid parking tickets — something state lawmakers are also expected to vote on later this fall — the city is restructuring its ticket payment plan structure and reducing down payment requirements. Until now, drivers with significant ticket debt faced down payments of $1,000 and often turned to bankruptcy instead.

The city will also stop doubling fines for one of its costliest citations: the $200 ticket for drivers who fail to buy a required annual vehicle sticker. Under the new legislation, the late penalty will fall to $50, though motorists can still accrue a 22% collections fee. Vehicle sticker tickets account for the largest amount of outstanding parking ticket debt, ProPublica Illinois and WBEZ have found.

In addition, the city will reinstate a 15-day grace period after stickers expire to give motorists more time to come into compliance before facing tickets and offer an amnesty period later this year that would wipe out old sticker ticket debt if motorists come into compliance. Details on the amnesty program have not been finalized.

Finally, the city will also allow motorists whose vehicles have been immobilized by the so-called Denver boot an additional 24 hours to pay their ticket debt or get on a payment plan before the cars are impounded.

The legislation borrows from recommendations of a ticketing task force that had been launched in December by City Clerk Anna Valencia, whose office has also legislated its own modest reforms around city sticker tickets.

City officials said that though they project a $15 million revenue loss in 2020, they expect the reforms to become revenue neutral or even lead to an increase in revenue, as people who could not afford city payment plans come online and pay their debts.

Still, a handful of aldermen complained about the prospect of losing revenue in a time of financial hardship for the city, and insisted that so-called ticket “scofflaws” deserve to have their driving privileges taken away. In 2018, revenue from parking and automated camera tickets generated some $272 million for the city, or about 7% of its $3.8 billion operating budget, Finance Department officials said.

This year, the city faces an $838 million budget deficit.

During a Finance Committee hearing on Monday, Ald. Patrick Thompson said the reforms unfairly benefit motorists who repeatedly rack up tickets for parking in handicap zones at the expense of law-abiding citizens from neighborhoods like his.

Thompson, a nephew of former Mayor Richard M. Daley, represents the city’s 11th Ward, which is centered in the family’s Bridgeport neighborhood on the South Side.

“I understand there is a hardship with some folks in paying for it, but my residents in my community have a hardship with paying an increase [in] property tax, an increase [in] fees and fines, and they obey the law and they abide by the law and they pay their debts,” said Thompson, the only dissenting vote Wednesday.

Ald. Brendan Reilly of the downtown 42nd Ward, demanded to know how city officials had derived the projection that the reforms would cost $15 million in lost revenue. Eight years ago, aldermen did not question a claim by city officials that raising the cost of city sticker violations from $120 to $200 would generate some $16 million in new revenue.

ProPublica Illinois and WBEZ have reported how the decision to raise the cost of sticker tickets produced only modest revenue increases but led to hundreds of millions of dollars in debt for residents.

Lightfoot’s reforms don’t address the city’s impound program, which funnels tens of thousands of cars to a private contractor, some for as little as $200 each, WBEZ has reported. Administration officials say they are working to retool the program. The city was sued earlier this year over claims that some of the city’s crime-related impoundments are unconstitutional.

Ald. Raymond Lopez of the 15th Ward on the city’s Southwest side posed another possible reform: wiping out all ticket debt.

“Are you open to actually having a true amnesty and a zeroing event where we can actually just start fresh without having to carry all of this negative balances over and over again instead of giving us this false sense that we have some sort of collectible option available?” he asked.

Finance Department officials said they were open to discussing options.

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Portrait of Melissa Sanchez

Melissa Sanchez

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

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