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Despite $15 million cost, Lightfoot’s debt relief program advances to full City Council

Several aldermen wondered aloud about the compliance consequences of essentially turning the city into a permissive parent “enabling” chronic scofflaws.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot
Mayor Lori Lightfoot
Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s plan to go easier on scofflaws and stop suspending driver’s licenses for non-moving violations will cost cash-strapped Chicago $15 million in annual revenue, aldermen were told Monday.

Over time, top mayoral aides hope losses tied to the plan advanced by the City Council’s Finance Committee will disappear and the plan will become “revenue-neutral” as more and more motorists sign up for payment plans they can afford.

But at least initially, a city that is already struggling to close an $838 million shortfall will cost itself $15 million in annual revenue.

Those losses include:

• $7.5 million by ending the practice of doubling city sticker tickets from $200 to $400 after late fees. The city will also stop the process of issuing same-day or consecutive day tickets for compliance violations. Motorists ticketed for having an expired or missing city sticker or driving with an expired license plate will have 24-hours to remedy the violation before they can be hit again.

• $4.2 million by ending driver’s license suspensions for non-moving violations. Currently, more than 69,000 drivers licenses are in “suspension status” for non-payment of fines and fees, officials said. Roughly 57,000 will be eligible for re-instatement.

• $3.3 million by offering various forms of debt relief. The mayor’s plan calls for creating a six-month, universal payment plan that includes lower down payments and more time to pay for motorists in financial distress. Scofflaws whose vehicles are booted would also be empowered to request a 24-hour extension to pay their fines in full or get on a payment plan.

Several aldermen wondered aloud about the compliance consequences of essentially becoming a permissive parent.

“If somebody had a ticket and they get another ticket, they can just add that to the payment plan [again and again]...At some point, there’s a little tough love [needed]. We’ve got to stop,” said Ald. Patrick Daley Thompson ( 11th).

Thompson stood his ground, even after a top mayoral aide argued that the city has “an obligation to educate people on how to get out of that cycle of debt.”

“It’s not a cycle of debt. It’s a chronic violation of the law. The only reason their debt is increasing is ‘cause they continue to get tickets and we’re not doing anything to stop them. We’re enabling them,” Thompson said.

“I understand there’s a hardship of some folks in paying for it. But residents of my community have a hardship of paying an increased property tax and increased fees and fines. They abide by the law and they pay their debts….We have to look at those that are ...paying their debts and not burden them with this additional cost.”

West Side Ald. Jason Ervin (28th) agreed that drivers’ license suspensions should remain in the city’s arsenal.

“I just think that the fact that you totally take that off the table – for those who are law-abiding – it’s unfair to them,” Ervin said.

“I understand the goal that the mayor has….But at some point, it may be necessary.”

Ald. George Cardenas (12th) said he, too, is uneasy about signing off on a plan to go easier without “some limit” on the amount of debt that will be tolerated.

“If we’re just gonna keep adding debt and debt on top of these payment plans for these folks, I’m uncomfortable with that. If you want to help them, I’m with you. But this city has to run. This city needs the revenue,” Cardenas said.

Ald. Michael Scott Jr. (24th) countered that the city’s decision to bring the sledgehammer down on scofflaws is having a disproportionate impact on black and Hispanic motorists.

He told the story of a CTA bus driver with a wife and three children who piled up $5,000 worth of city sticker tickets, lost his license, his job and was ultimately driven into bankruptcy.

“Hopefully, it won’t be a revenue-neutral thing. This will be a revenue generator because people don’t want to walk around with tickets on their back and have this debt as a noose around their neck. They want to pay this debt,” Scott said.

He added, “This is just the first step in terms of reform to make our city a more equal city.”

Lightfoot campaigned on a promise to raise the boot threshold, stop booting for non-moving violations and eliminate a hefty chunk of red light cameras at 149 intersections if those cameras were used for revenue—not safety.

Lightfoot has defended that go-slow approach by arguing that vehicle tickets account for $260 million in annual revenue and that a habit like that can’t be broken overnight.