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Mayor Emanuel orders six-week amnesty for pre-2012 tickets, debts

To generate millions and give beleaguered scofflaws a break, Mayor Rahm Emanuel on Friday authorized a six-week amnesty program that will extend to all outstanding debts owed to the city — not just parking, red-light and speed cameras tickets.

City Hall has been reluctant to offer frequent amnesty programs for fear of reducing collection rates by creating the expectation of periodic breaks.

But the City Council’s Progressive Caucus has urged the mayor to throw scofflaws a bone to reduce the city’s mountain of outstanding debt and chip away at the $30 billion pension crisis that has dropped Chicago’s bond rating to junk status.

Everyday Chicagoans also appealed for another amnesty during three town hall meetings Emanuel held this week to solicit cost-cutting and revenue-raising ideas from the general public.

The appeals got even louder after the Chicago Sun-Times disclosed that Emanuel was poised to raise property taxes by $500 million for police and fire pensions and school construction and raise $100 million more by imposing a suburban-style garbage collection fee.

On Friday, the mayor embraced the idea and spelled out the details.

The amnesty will run for six weeks—from Nov. 1 until Dec. 15—and apply to anyone who owes the city money—whether it’s a motorist with outstanding parking, red-light or speed camera tickets or a business with outstanding violations and overdue taxes. To qualify, the tickets or violations must have occurred before 2012.

During that six-week window, accrued penalties and interest‎ from the old tickets, violations and back-taxes will be waived. Scofflaws will still pay the face value of the ticket or the base amount of the fine. The rest of the slate will be wiped clean.

After Dec. 15, the penalties and interest will start accumulating once again.

As a further sweetener, Emanuel plans to introduce an amendment that will allow all motor vehicle owners to enter into a payment plan before fines and fees on parking tickets double.

Currently, payment plans are only available after the fines double. The city also plans to simplify payment plan options for motorists by allowing them to sign up online.

The six-week amnesty will be Chicago’s third in thirteen years.

In 2002, City Hall raked in more than $8.2 million and wiped 242,000 old parking tickets off the books with a six-week parking ticket amnesty followed by a drop in the boot threshold — from five unpaid tickets to three.

Scofflaws were lured by the city’s offer to waive the ticket penalty in full and roll it back to the original fine amount.

Seven years later, the city collected $7 million and wiped 135,000 unpaid parking and red-light tickets off the books during a 10-week amnesty that set the stage for a booting blitz.

Once again, amnesty was used to soften the blow of a drop in the booting threshold—from three unpaid tickets to two older than one year. When the amnesty opened, 170,000 motorists fell into that category.

At the time, scofflaws were offered a smaller carrot. The city waived only 50 percent of the penalties, and only on tickets issued before Jan. 1, 2007. In order to qualify, tickets had to be paid in full.

But even with the smaller incentive, motorists embraced the opportunity to wipe the slate clean.

Although the Office of Budget and Management projected a $1 million take, the amnesty produced seven times that amount and a record number of online payments.

This time, City Hall made no projections. But Emanuel knows that grace period will play well with delinquent motorists eager to get off the city’s boot list and business scofflaws determined to lift the brick on city licenses.

“In preparing the 2016 budget, I’ve heard from many residents and aldermen seeking an amnesty program for outstanding debt along with simplified payment plan options for motorists,” the mayor was quoted as saying in a press release.

“The amnesty plan is part and parcel of the city’s stronger scofflaw enforcement strategy that ensures those who owe debt to the city are paying their fair share.”

South Side Ald. Willie Cochran (20th) said he led the charge for another amnesty in response to pleas from residents and business owners who can’t afford to pay the fines and penalties tacked on by the city.

“They want to pay, but with the penalties and interest, it makes it very difficult,” Cochran was quoted as saying.

“This amnesty program will provide businesses and the public an opportunity to get fines and penalties….and pay the baseline penalties. The mayor and City Council want to help in these difficult times as we have to make very difficult decisions. The amnesty program will provide that sought after relief.”