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Frustrated Taxpayer Points Out Payment Loophole That Cost City $17 Million

 Chicago paid $17 million to credit card companies in 2014 as a result of accepting such payments. The city has been slowly rolling out fees to cover the cost of such transactions. These fees have totaled $7.2 million since they were first introduced in 2015, according to city officials.
Chicago paid $17 million to credit card companies in 2014 as a result of accepting such payments. The city has been slowly rolling out fees to cover the cost of such transactions. These fees have totaled $7.2 million since they were first introduced in 2015, according to city officials.
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MOUNT GREENWOOD — Terri Oliver was frustrated with her water bill and a looming property tax increase when a nagging question popped into her mind.

Oliver noticed the city accepted credit card payments for water bills and other services. And having spent her career in the payments industry, she knew that came at a cost.

The Mount Greenwood resident reached out to a staffer with Ald. Matt O'Shea (19th) in 2014 and explained the fees associated with accepting credit card payments. O'Shea took her concerns up the chain.

Changes have since been made to the city's payments system, including the addition of fees charged to people paying with plastic. Prior to these fees, the city paid $17 million in 2014 to credit card companies, according to city officials.

"This really was a casual conversation. That's how it started," said Oliver, the wife of a Chicago firefighter.

Chicago Comptroller Erin Keane said city budget officials had long known about the cost of accepting credit card payments and were quietly working on alternatives. Spurred in part by Oliver's call to action, the city began charging service fees to credit card users in July 2015.

The fees were first charged to those paying their business taxes. One month later, credit card users were charged a fee for putting some city licenses on their cards. Credit card fees for red light tickets, speeding tickets and other fines were added in November 2015.

The city began charging credit card users a fee for paying their water bills with plastic in March 2016. Just ahead of these fees being instituted, the city rolled out an alternative to paying with a card: an electronic payment system that deducts directly from the bill payer's bank account.

Known as an Automated Clearing House or ACH, it is available without a fee, Keane said. There is also an option to sign up for automatic deductions to pay your water bills (which also include a fee for sewer service and garbage pickup).

"That's essentially why we waited [to roll out credit card fees] because we wanted to be sure we had a free option for people," Keane said, adding that the city also accepts cash and checks without an extra charge.

Since the city began charging credit card fees in 2015, it's collected $7.2 million to off-set the cost of accepting such payments. But because of the gradual roll out of the program, the city still paid $9.9 million in credit card fees last year, said Mary Kay Accurso, a city spokeswoman.

City stickers are one of the few holdouts for the new credit card service fee, along with building permits and some fines that require an administrative hearing, such as high weeds. Fees for paying such things with a credit card will be rolled out by 2018, Accurso said.

The also city plans to roll out its free online payment option for city stickers and the other holdouts at this time, she said.

Terri Oliver of Mount Greenwood has spent her career working in the payments industry. She pointed to a loophole that cost the city $17 million in 2014. [DNAinfo/Howard A. Ludwig]

Keane said the city charges just 1.83 percent of each transaction to those who pay with a credit card. It's the lowest of any such fee charged by a Chicago-area municipality. Cook County has the second-lowest fee at 2.13 percent per transaction, she said.

And while paying a fee to use a credit card hasn't been met with applause, Keane said city officials haven't "heard much grumbling" either.

"I think people aren't surprised by service fees on credit cards because they are used to doing it," she said.

Interestingly, several suburbs were using credit cards to pay their water bills with the city. These large transactions cost the city $2.5 million in 2013, Keane said. But most of the credit card fees paid by the city came from smaller transactions, such as parking tickets and paying for licenses.

A 13-year resident of the neighborhood on the Far Southwest Side, Oliver said she'll continue to write checks to avoid credit card fees. And she's happy to hear that accepting credit card payments will soon no longer cost taxpayers money.

Keane said suggestions like those made by Oliver are always welcome, and Mayor Rahm Emanuel often calls for any new ideas regarding revenue or belt-tightening around the time of the city's annual budget address.

"We want people to reach out with ideas to say, 'What about this?'" she said.