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IG reports progress in reforming arcane loading zone process

The city's inspector general once called the loading zone sign program an "anachronistic legacy of the old Chicago ripe for a generational upgrade." The city is taking steps to fix it, according to a new report. | Sun-Times File Photo

Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration has collected $748,137 of $3.9 million in outstanding sign fees and overhauled an arcane bureaucratic process that required the full City Council to approve loading zones, Inspector General Joe Ferguson has concluded.

Last year, Ferguson audited the process of applying for two types of signs: for loading zones and for parking for people with disabilities in residential areas. The goal was to pinpoint delays in sign installation and determine whether the cash-strapped city had collected all of the fees owed to Chicago taxpayers.

What he found was a loading zone sign program he called an “anachronistic legacy of the old Chicago ripe for a generational upgrade” and a disabled parking sign program with its own problems.

In 2013 alone, City Hall “failed to collect $3.9 million” or nearly 60 percent of “recurring loading zone fees invoiced” that year. The past-due amount included uncollected debt held from prior years.

Despite a three-year-old promise to overhaul the system, the city still lacks a “standardized process to maintain loading zone applications and did not maintain complete data for 88.4 percent of installations.”

On Tuesday, Ferguson released a follow-up audit that showed substantial progress on several fronts.

The loading zone installation process now requires the relatively simple signoff from the local alderman, instead of full City Council approval.

The city departments of Transportation and Finance have worked together and taken action against 1,586 delinquent sign accounts, collecting $748,137 in outstanding fees. Holds have been placed on 352 of those accounts with demand letters sent to 634 others.

The Department of Finance has not yet altered the process for installed disabled parking signs, but it plans to work with a City Council committee to “find more timely ways to process” those requests, the inspector general wrote.

The department also has reviewed its records of signs installed since 2014 and found that 2 percent of those permits “had not been billed for annual fees.”

“Once it determines what caused the two percent inaccuracy rate, it will resolve any problems,” Ferguson wrote.

“In addition to the internal changes that both DOF and CDOT have undertaken, CDOT and City Council are working together to examine the loading zone approval process and determine where efficiencies can be made both for the benefit of the applicants and taxpayers. I look forward to seeing similarly forward-moving collaboration” from those conversations, the inspector general said.

Most major cities have a standardized program for businesses needing loading zones for delivery trucks.

Not Chicago. Here, it has been an arcane process in which businesses were required to submit a form to the local alderman — a form that may differ from ward to ward.

The alderman then brought the form to the City Council. The Pedestrian and Traffic Safety Committee requested a site survey by the Chicago Department of Transportation. Then, the City Council passed a final ordinance. CDOT installed the sign and invoiced the recipient.

Disabled parking signs also are reviewed and approved by the local alderman in a process that culminates in City Council approval of an ordinance.

In last year’s audit, Ferguson unmasked Chicago’s loading zone sign program, and argued that the “needless administrative and organizational compartmentalization, lack of complete inventory and lack of uniformity” undermined the program’s objectives.