Inspector general says millions in commercial driveway permit fees slipping through city’s fingers

Mayor Lori Lightfoot knows she must wield the budget ax and make certain the city is collecting all the revenue it’s supposed to be getting.

SHARE Inspector general says millions in commercial driveway permit fees slipping through city’s fingers
Inspector General Joe Ferguson

Inspector General Joe Ferguson says the city is losing out on millions of dollars a year in overdue commercial driveway permit fees.

Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Before asking beleaguered Chicago taxpayers to cough up even more of their hard-earned money, Mayor Lori Lightfoot knows she must wield the budget ax and make certain the city is collecting all the revenue it’s owed.

She might want to start with driveway permits.

Inspector General Joe Ferguson is out this week with a new audit that claims the Chicago Department of Transportation is letting up to $1.5 million a year slip through its fingers by either inaccurately billing or failing to send bills to 6,713 holders of commercial driveway permits.

City Hall also forfeits nearly $4 million more in annual revenue by failing to “actively pursue payment” of “at least 11,561 active permits” currently past due.

The “most common reason” for the failure to bill businesses for driveway permit renewal was the property owner was “either unknown or disputed” and CDOT “had not researched and resolved the ownership question,” Ferguson said.

Since CDOT’s property ownership information is “unreliable,” the Department of Finance does not include delinquent driveway permit fees in the city’s standardized debt collection process, the inspector general said.

“This has created a self-perpetuating cycle. The errors in CDOT’s ownership records prevent the department from using existing city processes to correct its records,” Ferguson said.

Acting Transportation Commissioner Tom Carney responded to the audit by promising to collaborate with the Department of Information Technology to “migrate driveway data” to a new, more reliable system.

Carney also promised to collaborate with the Departments of Finance and Law to “determine the most effective method for collecting” past-due driveway permit fees.

Those are just some of the corrective measures proposed by Ferguson, who is clearly getting antsy.

The inspector general noted CDOT has made and broken repeated promises to “modernize program software,” but the upgrades “have to happen.”

Instead, the city has lost revenue and, without a fix, “is certain to continue to lose out on millions of dollars of otherwise reliable, predictable revenue,” Ferguson was quoted as saying in a press release.

“The difficulty of identifying who owns the properties, despite interagency data and resources, means millions in lost revenue from commercial properties utilizing public resources in the form of sidewalks and curb space.”

Ferguson bemoaned the “inter-departmental finger-pointing” perpetuating a problem that has cost Chicago taxpayers millions. He called it a “lingering legacy of the historical siloing of City departments wrought by our political machine and patronage history.”

“This audit presents the new [Lightfoot] administration with an opportunity to eradicate an operational artifact of the past and introduce an enterprise fix driven by best outcomes for the City, operationally and fiscally,” he wrote.

Lightfoot has acknowledged there is “no question that we’re gonna have to come to the taxpayers and ask for additional revenue” to erase a budget shortfall that, she claims, is “north of $700 million.”

She has also acknowledged she is seriously considering asking the Illinois General Assembly to empower the city to impose a sales tax on high-end professional services like legal and accounting fees.

On Tuesday, the mayor said she has not yet read Ferguson’s driveway permit audit.

But she renewed her promise to look internally first.

“I’m not thinking of anything other than what can we do to make sure that we bring our numbers down,” she said

“I’m not gonna ask Chicago taxpayers to do more until we demonstrate that the city … is running as efficiently as it can and that we are getting every savings that we can. ... We are working hard every single day to make sure we’re doing our job so we have something to say to taxpayers that we’re taking their hard-earned tax dollars seriously and that we’re not continuing to balance the budget on the backs of those who can least afford it.”

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