Private booters to get 21 percent fee hike

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Sun-Times file photo

Five months ago, price-gouging concerns derailed a plan to empower private booters roaming free in more than half of Chicago’s 50 wards to raise boot removal fees by $30 in exchange for stiffer regulations.

On Wednesday, the second time was the charm for the ordinance championed by Ald. Proco Joe Moreno (1st) and embraced by the mayor’s administration to bolster consumer protection.

The City Council’s License Committee approved the 21.4 percent fee hike – raising the maximum removal fee for private booters empowered to operate in 30 of Chicago’s 50 wards from $140 to $170-per-vehicle.

“There’s got to be some regulation. And I’d rather have booting than towing. It’s easier and quicker to get your car back than it is if you’re towed,” said Moreno, who’s running for the congressional seat soon to be vacated by retiring U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Il.)

“I don’t want tow trucks. More trucks on the street. More emissions in the air. Bad for environmental policy. And if I’ve parked illegally, I’d rather be able to deal with the boot in ten minutes than have to go find my car, pay more money to the towing companies.”

Pressed to justify the $30 increase, Moreno said, “They’re competing with the towing companies. The question should be, why do the towing companies get $220 or $230 to pull your car up in the air and drive it down my streets and then my constituents have to go find it and pay a higher fee.”

In exchange for the 21.4 percent fee hike, the city’s four private booters would be required to:

– Pay $1,000 for a two-year license—four times the current $250 fee.

– Remove the boot at no charge if the owner returns to the lot before the boot is fully applied.

– Register each location where the company is operating and pay a $100 fee for each site.

– Put their employees in uniforms and train them on boot installation and removal.

– Offer a 24-hour hotline accessible to consumers with questions and complaints.

– Place signs at the entrance and exits to all lots.

Last year, Barbara Gressel, deputy commissioner of the city’s Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection, called the $30 fee hike a “fair compromise with the industry to achieve some of the more stringent consumer protections.”

Aldermen did not agree. Their concerns shelved Moreno’s trade-off ordinance.

On Wednesday, Moreno made the argument uniformed booting crews would bolster public safety.

“It helps to have uniformed folks in our parking lots 24-hours. Even though they’re not the police, it gives a sense and presence of safety. More eyes on the street,” Moreno said.

Small businesses struggling to survive in congested Chicago neighborhoods view booting as a kinder, gentler and less costly way to handle the chronic problem of parking poachers. It doesn’t require towing, which could damage the car.

But over the years, the burgeoning use of private booting has been mired in controversy.

In 1999, the City Council moved to prohibit private booting amid reports of price-gouging and fisticuffs.

Eighteen months later, aldermen put the weapon back in the arsenal of neighborhood retailers with the consent of the local alderman, provided booting companies obtain city licenses and abide by strict regulations governing everything from fees, insurance and signs to staffing and credit card payments.

In 2004, private booters were further required to wait 15 minutes after a vehicle is parked before booting and to post signs informing motorists who return to their vehicles before the boot is fully applied of their right to demand removal at no charge.

At the time, Chicago Sun-Times columnist Neil Steinberg had shined the light on private booting abuses.

They included booters who swarm in for the kill, even if a motorist stops at an ATM to get money to shop at a local store. There have also been complaints of booters targeting motorists for “double-shopping” — first at the store with a parking lot, then somewhere else down the street.

In 2016, a move to slap a “convenience fee” on motorists who use credit cards to pay private boot removal fees stalled amid similar price-gouging concerns.

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