In a searing suite of articles and digital posts over recent months, ProPublica Illinois’ Melissa Sanchez and WBEZ’s Elliott Ramos have laid out for us the particulars of the City’s program to punish “scofflaws” who fail to pay city sticker fines or tickets for red light cams and license plate stickers.
“The city sticker costs between like $90 and $130-something, depending on the size of your car,” Sanchez explains, “but the ticket for not having a city sticker is $200. You don’t pay it on time … it doubles to $400, and then after some time they tack on one more fee so it’s $488 and we found thousands of cases of people getting hit with two, three, four of these in a single day. So you can see how that can quickly add up if you can’t afford to pay it right away.”
“So we focused on those because it’s easier for you to wrap your head around,” she explains. “It’s not like you got a ticket for driving badly or for parking like a jerk. It’s because you did not or could not afford to pay the fee to register your vehicle in the city.”
Ramos explains that every day after the boot is attached to your car the fines escalate. “So you have the tow fee which is $150. Then you have on that same day you get a $20 a day storage fee. On day #5 it goes up to $35 a day, at which point it’s almost a sure that the person is going to lose the car. There’s very few people that are caught up in that cycle that actually get their car out and they just lose it. And when I say lose it it’s held in the impound for about 21 to 30 days and then they sell it to a private contractor.”
And the costs don’t stop even after you permanently lose your car. “On top of everything else that we talked about,” Sanchez continues, “You have to pay the crushing fee even if the city sold the car to the towing company and the towing company could have sold it at auction and made a profit. That doesn’t matter.” The crushing fee is $100.
So at this point, you’ve lost your car, you owe more than you can pay and your credit rating is in jeopardy. Ironically, though, the City may have collected some fines, but it hasn’t really benefitted much either. The real winner, in so many cases, is the private contractor. Again, Elliott Ramos:
“And so the way that the city wrote this contract, which is really really funny because there’s no safeguards built into this, no oversight built into this, is that they just transfer wholesale the assets of these cars as if they are all junkers,” he explains. “I went into the towing data and got the VINs all decoded that says what the make, year, and model of it and some of these were from 2015, 2013, 2012. Any used car dealer will tell you that most of these cars are worth thousands of dollars. Now because of the way that they are transferred the city doesn’t actually retitle them, they get a salvage title on them and then a rebuilt title which the city is like well then it means it’s not worth that much. And like you’re still driving a BMW, like it’s still a newer car.”
Sanchez laments that, as debt and bankruptcy began to soar, the City’s response was to try to insure itself against loss of revenue from citizens who’d declared bankruptcy.
“The debt just exploded after 2011 and what that’s meant is thousands of people are going into bankruptcy each year because that’s one mechanism they have to deal with this,” she tells us. “It helps them get their licenses back and in the Law Department they hired a guy to deal with this. And what do I mean by deal with it? They hired a guy to figure out some way to keep people from filing for bankruptcy so the city could get money… somebody knows that this is a problem but their response hasn’t been how do we adjust our policies so people aren’t going into debt over parking tickets? Instead their solution is how do we figure out some new legal tactic to keep people from stiffing us? This is kind of how they see it.”
And there’s yet another aspect to City-related tows. We’ve already seen from these reports that 50,000 cars have been booted, towed and sold for scrap by the city since 2011 – just during the Emanuel administration – but Ramos says that’s just a small portion of the total.
“That was just the scofflaws,” he explains. “It’s probably, so I’m literally going to City Hall after this to pick up more records, but the number is probably closer to 150,000 when you include the crime-related tows.”
And this issue of City-induced bankruptcy goes deeper than sticker fees. Ramos tells us that the team is starting to look into a number of unrelated fee escalators, and how they may play some role in Chicago’s declining population. The City, he says, raised a lot of different fees.
“My colleague today published a story on water shut-offs and it’s the same neighborhoods we’re seeing that were affected like Englewood, Lawndale. We’re seeing the same stuff but also the same neighborhoods that are losing their population. At some point or another someone is going to start connecting the dots that the city may have had a role in creating abject poverty.”
One final note: As a direct result of this series of reports, all fourteen mayoral candidates have said they will work to modify the system of escalating fees, fines and impoundments that have been sending thousands of Chicagoans into bankruptcy.
WBEZ’s story on how quickly a Chicagoan can descend into City-induced bankruptcies is HERE.