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Emanuel wants higher boot fees, ‘self-release’ boots

Booting fees will rise dramatically — and Chicago parking ticket scofflaws may finally get the chance to remove their own wheel-locking Denver boots instead of waiting for city crews to arrive — under sweeping changes proposed this week by Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

Also tucked away in a “management ordinance” tied to Emanuel’s bad-news 2016 budget is a plan to raise the booting fee by a whopping 66 percent: from $60 to $100.

“The city has not raised boot fees in over ten years, so we are raising the fines to better align with the costs of booting a vehicle,” Molly Poppe, a spokeswoman for the city’s Office of Budget and Management, wrote in an email to the Chicago Sun-Times.

The city boots roughly 55,000 vehicles each year from a list that includes more than 500,000 eligible license plates. Many of those plates are registered to motorists who live outside the city.

The catchall ordinance also lays the groundwork for allowing motorists to unlock their own boots nearly nine years after the “do-it-yourself” technology upgrade was first suggested.

“Subject to the availability of duly appropriate funds, the traffic compliance administrator is authorized to enter into service contracts with vendors . . . for the purpose of receiving self-release immobilization devices lawfully removed pursuant to approval” by the city, the ordinance states.

The traffic compliance administrator was further authorized to “adopt rules for the proper administration and enforcement” of the do-it-yourself program.

Yet another section of ordinance states: “The owner of the immobilized vehicle and any person authorized by the traffic compliance administrator to remove any self-release immobilization device who fails to return such device to a location designated by the [city] within seven days shall be fined $50 for each day the person fails to return such device.”

The total fine “shall not exceed” $1,000 if the booted vehicle is a truck tractor, semitrailer or trailer and $750 for any other type of vehicle.”

The potential benefits of do-it-yourself boot removal are plenty: speeding up payments, thereby reducing the need to tow and store 400 vehicles a week because fines are not paid within 24 hours; minimizing motorist aggravation; freeing city crews tied up on releases to do more booting; and reducing tampering that typically destroys roughly 3.5 percent of the 1,200 boots applied each week.

“The city is looking for all opportunities to provide the best possible service to residents. A self-release boot, which is utilized in other major cities, allow motorists who are booted to pay their debts over the phone and release the boot on their own following payment. There will continue to be options for assisted release boots for individuals [who] do not wish or are unable to release the boot on their own,” Poppe wrote in the email.

Poppe said the city has not yet signed a contract for self-release boots and is still reviewing responses to a December request for proposals. Even if the program is wildly popular, the city has “no current plans to reduce the number of boot release crews.”

The booting section of the city’s Department of Finance has a $2.9 million budget and 34 employees. They apply and release boots, working from a boot eligibility list that includes 500,000 license plates, and generate $30 million in annual revenue.

The idea of “self-releasing” Denver boots was first suggested in 2006 as a way to make scofflaws who smash, kick and otherwise destroy Denver boots while trying desperately to remove them less inclined to tamper.

When City Hall first suggested allowing motorists to phone in their credit card numbers to pay up, then get a code that releases the boot when punched into a keypad on the device before returning the boot, some aldermen got suspicious.

“If you boot my car, I’m already mad. When you take it off, I’m still mad because I’ve had to pay you. Then, you want me to deliver something back to you? It’ll be in the street,” then-Ald. Fredrenna Lyle (6th) said.

One year later, the do-it-yourself concept was scrapped in favor of other technology upgrades, including pay-and-display boxes, automated license plate readers and beepers that allow motorists to pay for parking by phone. All have become standard operating procedure.

Mayor Richard M. Daley’s administration said it didn’t “have the money to do everything” and needed to “establish priorities and focus on proven technology.”

A request for proposals issued by the Emanuel administration last winter required interested contractors to designate “no less than five locations” where self-released boots could be returned and operate a boot call center that answers all phones “within eight rings.”

Companies vying for the contract also were required to describe in detail how they intended to resolve conflicts caused by boots returned in a damaged condition or by motorists who cause “damage to their car or themselves while self-releasing” boots.

The city intends to sign a five-year contract with a two-year renewal option that may start with a two-month pilot program to work out the kinks.

But the RFP made it clear that the contractor’s “sole compensation” for supplying 500 self-releasing boots a day, fielding calls, processing payments and operating the five drop-off centers “shall be the boot release fee.”

The precise amount was left blank in the RFP.

The winning bidder will be allowed to deduct “from a deposit to be charged to the operator’s credit card” if the motorist chooses to self-release but fails to return the boot or returns it damaged.

In 2008, Daley dropped the boot threshold from three unpaid tickets to two tickets that are more than a year old.

That triggered a booting frenzy, even as the number of parking tickets issued by the city declined, as Chicago Police officers were justifiably preoccupied with crime-fighting.

In 2010, the city was booting an average of 1,311 vehicles each week. The pace of booting has now dropped to 1,200 vehicles a week, with roughly 800 of them released by city crews. That has prompted the Emanuel administration to turn to the do-it-yourself technology to improve efficiency.

Self-release boots already are used in New York and Seattle. Motorists in Chicago will be required to pay a security deposit that would be refunded upon return of an undamaged boot.

The management ordinance is typically a kitchen sink of sorts.

It includes another surprise increase: in the seldom-enforced fine against property owners who fail to remove snow and ice from the sidewalk abutting their building. If the City Council approves the change, anyone who fails to clear a path of at least 5 feet in width would face a fine ranging from $50 to $500. Currently, the fine is $25 to $100.

“The city is looking to continue to improve access and reduce hazards on the public right-of-way for pedestrians, particularly the elderly and people with limited mobility,” Poppe wrote.

“By raising the fines, the City is better equipping CDOT personnel to issue meaningful penalties for building owners who do not shovel their sidewalks,” she wrote. “The City is establishing a fine range that can be adjusted based on the scale of the violation.”