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City Council approves Lightfoot’s plan to go easier on scofflaws

The city will start by reducing fines, expanding payments plans and stopping drivers’ license suspensions for non-moving violations

Parking tickets, booting and towing will be curtailed as the city continues to grapple with the coronavirus.
Drivers who get ticketed for illegal parking or other non-moving violations will get a break under Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s plan.
Sun-Times file photo

Despite the $15 million cost, the City Council on Wednesday approved Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s plan to cut Chicago scofflaws some slack — by reducing fines, expanding payments plans and stopping drivers’ license suspensions for non-moving violations.

The unanimous vote — without a word of debate — allowed Lightfoot to begin to deliver on a pivotal campaign promise.

Although her own financial team has acknowledged a $15 million hit to the city’s bottom line, the mayor argued the plan would soon become revenue-neutral.

“The fact of the matter is, we’re driving people into bankruptcy. We’re taking their cars. We’re preventing them from opportunities to work. If we give people a pathway to get right with the law, to pay off their past debt, we’re gonna empower people to be part of the economy, expanding our tax base,” she said.

City Clerk Anna Valencia added: “The city sticker debt is crazy. Only one out of three city sticker tickets are being paid-a-year. This is debt on our books we are never going to see. If we keep this debt on the back of our communities, they can’t get jobs. They can’t get child care. They can’t drive to work.”

City Clerk Anna Valencia and Mayor Lori Lightfoot discuss changes in ticketing and penalties after a Chicago City Council meeting in 2019.
City Clerk Anna Valencia and Mayor Lori Lightfoot discuss changes in ticketing and penalties. The Chicago City Council on Wednesday approved a plan pushed by Lightfoot that would, among other things, go easier on motorists for non-moving violations by reducing fines and reinstating a grace period to renew city vehicle stickers.
Fran Spielman/Sun-Times file

The mayor called Wednesday’s vote a first step. Next up is her plan to go easier on water scofflaws.

“We have stopped any shut-offs and we’re working on a plan to make sure that we...make them whole. ... Water is a fundamental right. If you cut people off in their homes from access to water, you’re effectively evicting them and you’re potentially creating a series of cascading health problems,” Lightfoot said.

During the campaign, Lightfoot promised 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.

She even proposed abolishing city stickers that are the source of so many compliance tickets and replacing the $128 million in annual revenue used to repair and maintain Chicago streets with higher fees on ride-hailing vehicles.

Compared to those lofty promises, the solutions the mayor delivered Wednesday in a unanimous vote without a word of debate may seem somewhat timid. But they still add $15 million to the city’s $838 million shortfall.

Those losses include:

• $7.5 million by ending the practice of doubling city sticker tickets from $200 to $400 after late fees. Instead, sticker scofflaws would be hit with $250 fines that include 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 automatic driver’s license suspensions for non-moving violations.

• $3.3 million by offering debt relief billed by the mayor’s office as the “most accessible payment plans” in the nation. That includes a six-month, universal payment plan with down payments as low as $35. Scofflaws whose vehicles are booted would be able to request a 24-hour extension to pay their fines in full or get on a payment plan.

Beginning Nov. 15, the city will reinstate the 15-day grace period to renew city stickers without a ticket and a 30-day grace period to purchase stickers without penalty.

Ald. Patrick Daley Thompson (11th) worries the pendulum has swung too far in the opposite direction.

“It’s not a cycle of debt. It’s a chronic violation of the law,” Thompson has said.

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

“This city needs the revenue,” he said.

Lightfoot has called the plan a “first but important step to unwinding the city’s addiction to fines and fees on the backs of low-income people.”

In 2017, fines and penalties — ranging from parking, red light and speed camera tickets to building code violations — raked in $344.9 million. That’s 9.4 percent of all city revenue. Vehicle tickets alone now rake in more than $260 million.

“Every time you do reform, there’s somebody who says it’s not enough,” Lightfoot said the day she unveiled the plan.