CHICAGO — City officials said Tuesday that they are taking steps to collect the $1.5 billion in unpaid tickets and fines owed the city, but said the vast majority of debt was on the books long before the mayor took office in 2011.
DNAinfo Chicago reported earlier Tuesday that Chicago is owed $1.5 billion for unpaid parking, red-light and speed-camera tickets — a potential cash cow for the city.
"Nearly 70 percent of the debt cited in this story was generated before Mayor Emanuel took office, and in fact, it is debt that stretches back a quarter of a century to before the fall of the Berlin Wall," Susan Hofer, a spokeswoman for the Department of Finance, said in an email sent late Tuesday morning. "Many of those who owe money from two decades ago are deceased, have moved, or are otherwise unreachable."
DNAinfo Chicago reported that the vast majority of the debt, $1.3 billion, is for parking tickets, while red-light camera tickets represent $205 million and speed cameras account for $27 million in outstanding fines, fees and penalties owed to the city.
The debt is far higher than that owed to other major cities like New York or Los Angeles.
One of the challenges Chicago faces is the percentage of debt owed by drivers residing outside the city limits, officials said. Thirty percent of outstanding ticket debt is owed by people who live outside the city's borders — meaning they are beyond the reach of city boot trucks.
However, Hofer pointed to the success of the Local Debt Recovery Program pushed in Springfield by Emanuel, which has allowed the city to recover $38 million in ticket debt since its inception in 2011.
"Since Mayor Emanuel implemented the Local Debt Recovery Program in conjunction with the State of Illinois in 2011, we have increased the collection of debt five years and older by 86 percent," Hofer said. "We work diligently to ensure that those who owe fines and penalties pay them while working with people who want to comply with the law but need assistance, including helping them enroll in payment plans."
But payment plans have been major failure for Chicago as, according to data obtained by a Freedom of Information Request, more than 80 percent of the 350,000 payment plans currently on the books are in default. Only $38 million from close to 65,000 plans are considered to be in good standing.
Hofer says the city has been working on policy changes to improve the city's payment plan program, including expanding options to lower the down payment and allowing hardship options for motorists who've had their driver's license suspended for having 10 unpaid parking or five red-light camera tickets on the books.
"The administration has been working for months on an improvement to the current payment plan system that will soon be advanced in the City Council," she said. "We have been working on ways to make it easier for people to get on a payment plan and pay the amount due, by simplifying and changing the current requirements. Examples include changes to the required down-payment and allowing payment plans to start before a fine defaults."
City officials say the Law Department has been successful in collecting on judgments obtained in lawsuits against scofflaws with outstanding ticket debt, which has generated nearly $18 million over the past four years.
Officials are also considering a handful of other ideas to make it easier for people to pay their tickets. This includes creating an email alert system for ticketed drivers; giving booted drivers a way to pay by phone or by other payment methods; improving the city's online payment website by expanding the number of third party payment options including paying at gas stations, grocery stores or other businesses; and embracing mobile payment technology. The city has already issued an RFP for third party payment services.
Hofer says the collection of debt older than five years has improved by 86% during the Emanuel administration. With just under $16 million in older debt recovered in 2011, long term debt recovery has improved over the past years with the city bringing in $29 million in 2014.
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