Your NPR news source
traffic control workers standing outside United Center

Traffic control workers stand outside the United Center during a concert at the stadium. Officials with the United Center, Lollapalooza and other enterprises that stage big events in the city complain that City Hall fails to bill them in a timely fashion for traffic control services, which contributes to the city’s ever-growing backlog of unpaid bills.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere

City Hall got $1 million in fees after Sun-Times asked promoters, teams: Why haven’t you paid up?

When Green Day, Def Leppard and Maroon 5 headlined separate concerts at Wrigley Field in August 2021, the city of Chicago billed the promoter nearly $24,000 to cover the cost of city employees working as traffic control aides.

The bill went unpaid for 2½ years — among a $6.4 billion mountain of uncollected bills, fines and fees that City Hall has allowed to pile up over two decades.

Mayor Brandon Johnson’sFinance Department won’t release details on traffic violators and many scofflaws, but it agreed to release data on $1.3 million in traffic control bills owed by the city’s sports teams, concert promoters and organizers of special events like the 2014 TV show “The Biggest Loser.”

And then a funny thing happened once Chicago Sun-Times reporters began calling those businesses: They began paying up. One million dollars of the $1.3 million in unpaid traffic control bills got paid, City Hall records show.

Concert promoter Live Nation, for one, sent City Hall two checks last month totaling $46,881 for traffic control services for concerts at Wrigley Field that included performances by Green Day, Def Leppard and Maroon 5.

“We can confirm that we are 100% up to date on payments for any traffic-management bills we’ve received from the city of Chicago,” Live Nation spokeswoman Abby Stout says.

The problem, according to Stout and representatives of sports teams and other businesses that were way behind on those bills, is that City Hall, though strapped for cash, takes its time in sending them a bill.

“We make every effort to pay any bills from the city as soon as we receive them,” Stout says, “which, at times, is months after the event takes place.”

Others, too, say City Hall frequently fails to bill them in a timely fashion. They dismiss any notion that they put off paying those bills for months or years.

Chasse Rehwinkel, Johnson’s city comptroller, acknowledges that there have been some delays in sending out bills since the mayor took office last May. He blames staffing problems.

But that doesn’t explain bills that were incurred under Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Mayor Rahm Emanuel that long went unpaid.

“The Department of Finance, together with the Office of Emergency Management and Communications, is committed to ensuring the safety of residents and the smooth operation of events, which includes traffic management,” Rehwinkel says. “Our departments work together in compiling and issuing bills for these services, typically within 30 to 60 days post-event. We acknowledge some delays in the past year due to staff transitions but are pleased to report significant improvements recently.”

Despite the improved collections since the Sun-Times started asking about the unpaid bills, City Hall says it’s still owed more than $586,000 for traffic control services as of March 8.

The National Football League is among the debtors. The NFL owes Chicago taxpayers $68,806 for traffic management in September 2019 for events including a Grant Park concert with Meek MIll and Meghan Trainor that was part of a celebration of the league’s 100th anniversary, an event capped by the Green Bay Packers beating the Bears at Soldier Field.

“I would refer you to the city about its billing process,” NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy says of the debt. “The league pays its bills upon receipt in a timely fashion. . . We’ve told the city that we are paying the bill and are simply working on getting it processed properly.”

Lollapalooza,the giant music festival in Grant Park that the mayor attended last summer, owed the city $16,875 for traffic control, according to an invoice dated last Oct. 2. City Hall followed up with a collection notice to festival operator C3 Presents on Jan. 23 after the Sun-Times requested a copy of that unpaid bill. On Feb. 14, City Hall got two payments totaling $110,003 from C3.

Dozens of festival goers walk around the Lollapalooza sign

Dozens of festivalgoers walk around the Lollapalooza sign near Buckingham Fountain, during the first day of Lollapalooza at Grant Park, Thursday, July 28, 2022.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere

“We strive to pay our bills as promptly as possible, but there are times we don’t receive invoices until months after the event has come and gone,” a C3 spokesman says. “We’ve reviewed our accounting ledgers and can confirm we are up to date with any bills we have received.”

United Center representatives had a similar explanation for unpaid traffic management bills for concerts last summer and fall and Blackhawks and Bulls games.

City Hall says the United Center sent six checks last month for $76,169 covering traffic services for concerts, including performances by Lionel Richie, Peter Gabriel and Pearl Jam.

“We pay the invoices when we get them, but oftentimes we get them long after the event has come and gone,” a United Center spokesman says.

Shortly after the Sun-Times requested data in December that showed the Cubs were late to pay for traffic control outside 40 games last July, August and September at Wrigley Field, the team paid about $215,000 to settle up with the city.

Asked whether the Cubs have had any issues with the city sending bills in a timely fashion, a spokesman says: “Not really.”

Other delinquent bills underscore the challenge the city faces in trying to get payments from entities that no longer exist.

“The Biggest Loser” was still airing on NBC in 2015 when the city billed the reality weight-loss competition show $2,445.80 for traffic control at a 5K race it held in Chicago. It was off the air when the city finance department sent a $2,408.86 bill in 2017 for another “Biggest Loser"-branded race. The show made a brief comeback in 2020 on another network, but the city is still out almost $4,900. The former race planner listed on the “Biggest Loser” bills didn’t return messages seeking comment.

City Hall also is out more than $34,000 for traffic management it provided in 2016 for ChiTown Rising, which was billed as the Midwest’s largest New Year’s Eve celebration.

Asked about those unpaid bills, ChiTown Rising organizer John Murray says: “There’s no business entity. The last time that event took place was in 2016. I can’t help you.”

As the operator of Chicago Special Events Management that hosts festivals across the city, Hank Zemola says he can’t explain an unpaid bill for $10,209 in traffic management fees for Pride in the Park, held in Grant Park on June 26-27, 2021.

“We live and die in the city of Chicago,” Zemola says. “If there’s anything delinquent, they won’t issue a permit.

“It’s a bad system the way it’s set up. They never bill. I have to call their finance department. I think they forget about them. If we get it, we pay it right away. It can be frustrating.”

The Latest
Domestic violence with a gun is a leading cause of death for children, NPR’s Nina Totenberg reports. More than half of all mass shootings are perpetrated by people with a record of domestic violence.
Nearly a decade has passed since an Illinois politician as significant as Burke faced sentencing at the Dirksen Federal Courthouse. The need to send a message to others is sure to be on the judge’s mind when she makes her decision.
Two measures to further protect transgender people are awaiting Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s signature. But advocates say the state can do more to help the LGBTQ+ community, including a push to require school districts to teach sex education.
County Board President Toni Preckwinkle is also trying to figure out which pandemic-funded programs to keep as the county spends down federal dollars.

In an attempt to meet people where they are, Chicago now has a licensed professional counselor at the Legler Regional Library.