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Alderman wants to let private booters charge a ‘convenience fee’

Ald. Emma Mitts (37th) has dropped her plan to allow private companies that boot cars to charge a “convenience fee” to motorists who pay with a credit card to have the boot removed. | File photo

Motorists who park illegally in private lots and return to find their vehicles booted may soon have to pay a little extra for using credit cards to pay the $140 removal fee.

Ald. Emma Mitts (37th) chairman of the City Council’s License Committee, wants to empower private booters now roaming free in more than half of Chicago to charge a “convenience fee” to recoup the processing fee they must absorb when motorists pay with plastic.

Earlier this year, the City Council slapped a 50-cent surcharge on taxicab fares paid by credit card to provide a small measure of relief to cabdrivers fighting for survival in the Uber-era.

Now, Mitts wants to give private booters that same relief. She could not be reached for comment.

The ordinance she introduced at Wednesday’s City Council meeting does not specify the amount or percentage of the convenience fee.

It simply empowers private booters to tack a “reasonable convenience fee” onto “non-cash” payments.

“The convenience fee shall be charged only to cover any portion of the processing fee that the licensee incurs to accept non-cash payments to remove a boot through a credit card processing equipment,” the ordinance states.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s tax-laden, 2016 budget raised the city’s booting fee by a whopping 66 percent — from $60 to $100. It was the first such fee hike in more than a decade.

Private booters have a maximum removal fee of $140. They are empowered to operate in 26 of Chicago’s 50 wards, including downtown’s 42nd Ward, the 43rd Ward, which includes congested Lincoln Park, and the 44th Ward, which includes Lakeview and Wrigley Field.

Molly Poppe, a spokesperson for the city’s Office of Budget and Management, stopped short of embracing the proposed convenience fee. That’s apparently because most motorists pay with plastic.

“We need to have more conversations with Ald. Mitts. We want to better understand the potential impact,” Poppe said Thursday.

“I wouldn’t say there’s a concern. We just want to understand what the convenience fee would be for and why they’re applying it.”

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, then-License Committee Chairman Eugene Schulter persuaded the City Council to prohibit private booting amid reports of price-gouging and fisticuffs.

Eighteen months later, he 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 line 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.

“Customers are complaining that they’re being booted within 30 seconds of being off the property,” Ald. Tom Tunney (44th) said at the time.

Schulter complained then that he had heard from people who “never even leave the lot and still get booted.”