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Manuel Martinez

Chicago Launches Ticket Debt Forgiveness Website, New Payment Plans

The city of Chicago launched its debt forgiveness program Friday for drivers with outstanding city sticker tickets. It also rolled out more lenient payment plans.

The moves are the latest to make good on Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s campaign promises to end the Chicago’s “addiction to fines and fees,” which have contributed to an explosion of bankruptcies and car seizures.

Residents are required to buy the sticker, which is a road tax. Those with an expired sticker, or no sticker at all, could get multiple $200 tickets.

Chicagoans who purchased a city sticker as of Oct. 31 are now eligible to have at least three unpaid city sticker tickets dropped. And other motorists who are in financial hardship can get all of their city sticker ticket debt forgiven.

”My administration is relentlessly focused on lifting people out of poverty,” Lightfoot said in a statement. “So when we first set out to overhaul Chicago’s regressive fines and fees system by making it more equitable for people of all financial circumstances, we made it our mission to remove barriers that trap residents in a cycle of debt.”

The program – dubbed “A New Start Chicago” – has the potential to offer debt relief to more than 500,000 motorists, according to the city. Those drivers owe the city more than $500 million in unpaid city sticker tickets issued since 1990.

The staggering numbers are reflective of just how many have been affected by city sticker tickets, and the scope of financial burden it caused.

At $200, city sticker tickets could rise to $488 with late penalties and collection fees. In September, the City Council voted to slash late fees, reinstated a 15-day grace period for lapsed stickers and banned consecutive and same-day ticketing.

WBEZ and ProPublica Illinois found that thousands of drivers were hit with duplicate city sticker tickets on the same day. The use of city stickers is Chicago’s way of charging vehicle owners for using city roads. Stickers typically cost between between $88 and $139 per year, depending on vehicle weight.

Failure to buy a sticker can lead to some of the costliest citations in the city. Debt from those tickets, in turn, has contributed to tens of thousands of vehicle impoundments, license suspensions and Chapter 13 bankruptcies, WBEZ and ProPublica Illinois have reported.

Jenna Severson is a communications and development associate for the Woodstock Institute, a nonprofit advocating for fair financial policy. The group released a report last year on racial and economic disparities in Chicago ticketing.

“We urge the thousands of Chicago families who have been burdened by costly ticket debt to take advantage of the City’s debt relief program and reformed payment plan options,” Severson said in a statement.

“We look forward to seeing what else Mayor Lightfoot will do to confront the root causes of inequity in Chicago’s vehicle ticketing system, including addressing racial and economic disparities in ticket issuance that make it 40 percent more likely for drivers in non-white and low-income neighborhoods to receive a ticket than drivers from wealthier, whiter parts of the city.”

The New Start Chicago website provides information on Lightfoot’s new payment plans, including hardship qualifications, and other FAQs related to fines and fees reform. Residents will be able to access payment plans with lower down payments and more time to pay, allowing them to get in compliance and stay in compliance, according to the mayor’s statement.

Residents facing Chapter 7 bankruptcy will have the chance to have previous debt cleared if they complete a payment plan, the statement said.

Lightfoot’s program also seeks to address those whose cars were booted, towed, impounded and sold, but are still on the hook for the associated debt.

A WBEZ investigation revealed that the city sold more than 50,000 cars since 2011 from indebted drivers. About half of the ticket debt was from city sticker tickets. None of the proceeds from the car sale go toward paying off the debt the vehicle’s owner accrued during ticketing, booting and towing.

Another WBEZ investigation showed that those cars were funneled to a politically connected tow company for under $200 a piece.

The announced reforms extend the period of time for booted vehicles by an additional day, but do not address the fees or ordinances associated with the impound system.

Sources close to the mayor’s office have said changes to the program are still in the works, but in the interim, the city is facing a class-action lawsuit that challenges the constitutionality of the city’s crime-related impounds.

Elliott Ramos is WBEZ’s data editor. Follow him on Twitter at @ChicagoEl.

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