With his first budget, Mayor Brandon Johnson could have reopened more mental health clinics, addressed homelessness without pushing for a controversial tax on high-end real estate transactions and hacked a bigger chunk off the city’s mountain of unfunded pension liabilities.
By the city’s accounting, he could have been able to do all of that while taking bigger swings at other campaign promises without breaking a sweat over a projected $538 million budget shortfall — and still had millions to spare for the city’s burgeoning migrant crisis.
There’s just one thing Johnson would have had to do to make this fiscal fantasy come true: Force a generation of debtors to pay up.
The city of Chicago is owed more than $6.4 billion in unpaid fees, fines and other debts that have piled up since 1990, a Chicago Sun-Times analysis has found.
That raises the question of why the perennially cash-strapped city hasn’t gone after late-paying scofflaws harder over the past three decades.
The eye-popping unpaid tab — which could have covered almost 40% of the mayor’s $16.77 billion budget — include outstanding payments from thousands of people, companies and other entities.
And interest is accruing by the day on many of their debts, some dating to former Mayor Richard M. Daley’s first full year in office.
The $6.4 billion in delinquent payments include:
- Nearly $2.9 billion in outstanding administrative hearing debt.
- More than $2.3 billion in old parking, speed and red-light-camera tickets.
- Nearly $723 million in unpaid water bills.
The longstanding money owed amounts to an average debt of almost $3,026 for each adult resident of the city.
But officials say it’s a much smaller group of scofflaws who have sidestepped the most substantial payments — many of them from outside Chicago.
City officials say they can’t provide the full list of debtors, citing litigation with some of the biggest offenders and the burden of tallying up the huge volume of the rest.
Johnson’s city comptroller acknowledges that most of that money is unlikely to ever end up being collected.
But, with budget troubles expected to deepen in years ahead, officials agree more should be done to boost the city’sy collections.
“A lot of good could be done in city government with $6 billion,” says City Hall Inspector General Deborah Witzburg, who says this is “an issue that needs attending to,” though it isn’t one that her watchdog office has evaluated “in a holistic, big-picture way.”
“If city operations are running so ineffectively as to leave enormous amounts of money on the table, then the city’s failing to meet its basic obligations to operate effectively and efficiently in the service of Chicagoans,” Witzburg says. “There are many, many needs of Chicagoans that could be met by better-resourced government programs.”
No ‘blood from a turnip’
Data provided by the city Department of Finance shows the biggest share of unpaid debts are from administrative court hearings — the result of violations issued by police, the Department of Streets and Sanitation and other city agencies — from 1998 through early October. Annual unpaid debts still top $100 million from 19 of those 25 years, a total approaching $2.9 billion.
Unpaid tickets issued to driver make up the next-biggest chunk of the debt — including $1.6 billion in parking tickets that have been handed out since 1990, $428 million in red-light-camera tickets since 2003 and more than $263 million in speed-camera tickets since 2013. Altogether, that’s nearly $2.3 billion that’s outstanding.
The city has been left high and dry on water bills to the tune of nearly $723 million since 2000, including more than $433 million on accounts still listed as active. Utility customers who have been shut off owe about $289 million.
Outstanding ambulance bills and other miscellaneous overdue costs have built up beyond $415 million since 1993. Tack on another $66 million in outstanding tax debts and $22 million in building inspection fees since 2004, and the scofflaws have collectively shorted the city by over $6.4 billion.
City Comptroller Chasse Rehwinkel — who worked in the offices of the Illinois comptroller and state treasurer before Johnson tapped him as Chicago’s top accountant — says such debt backlogs are “not totally alien to large municipalities.”
“Collecting really old debt is very difficult,” Rehwinkel says. “A lot of it is a function of entities that don’t exist, companies that have dissolved, people who have left the country, people who were involved in fraud. There’s just no way to claw back some of that money.”
Some of it is owed by lower-income residents, and you “can’t get blood from a turnip,” he says, so City Hall focuses collection efforts on “first-tier” debts incurred over the past three years, followed by “second-tier” debts up to five years old and then “third-tier” debts dating back 10 years.
“Beyond that, it’s generally sunk costs,” Rehwinkel says.
That’s why the main recovery targets are “relatively recent scofflaws who owe the city a lot of money and have the means but are skirting responsibility,” he says.
Such debtors — who likely number in the hundreds — are “mostly not from Chicago” and own properties that have racked up debt while the owners have taken advantage of legal mechanisms and loopholes “to skirt responsibility,” according to the comptroller, who won’t name names with city lawsuits pending.
Over the summer, the Illinois Answers Project and Block Club Chicago highlighted the case of a Northbrook real estate investor whose businesses have skipped out on $15 million in rat-related tickets on properties across the South Side and the West Side over several decades.
Before taking anyone to court, the city says it uses “various methods to collect the debt internally,” sending collection notices, seizing vehicles, scrutinizing business licenses and more.
If those actions don’t get people to pay up, the city refers cases to a collections agency that can file liens and garnish wages and bank accounts.Â
After that, these cases can drag on in courts indefinitely.
“It is frustrating to me,” Rehwinkel says. “If somebody is using all the mechanisms they can think of to get around those fees, they’re hurting the residents of the city of Chicago. We’re making concerted efforts to make sure that number is lowered.”
Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd), who chairs the City Council’s Finance Committee, says, “We really don’t have the luxury of ignoring these people in institutions, companies and organizations that ignore their debt. So we will be making sure that our department aggressively seeks out the city’s money. We can’t afford to leave anything on the table.
“As we are looking for new revenue sources,” Dowell says, “this is definitely an area we cannot overlook.”