Indebted Chicago drivers are running out of time to take advantage of a debt relief program for outstanding city sticker tickets.
Only a fraction of drivers have applied so far, and city officials are urging residents not to wait.
Dec. 15 is the last day to apply to potentially have your unpaid city sticker tickets forgiven if you got a valid sticker by Oct. 31.
And drivers whose vehicles were booted or seized may also qualify for debt relief. So can people who no longer live in the city.
“We hope that as many people as possible take advantage of it, and we encourage people to tell anyone they think might be able to be helped by it,” said Kristen Cabanban, a spokeswoman for the city’s Finance Department.
Here’s where you can sign up.
Chicago’s city sticker is essentially a municipal road tax, costing between between $88 and $139 per year, depending on the weight of the vehicle.
At $200, the ticket for not having a sticker is one of the most expensive in the city, and until recently could rise to $488 with collections and late fees. In September, the City Council voted to slash the late fees, reinstate a 15-day grace period for lapsed stickers, and ban same-day and consecutive ticketing. But hundreds of thousands of drivers are still on the hook for older tickets.
Last month, Mayor Lori Lightfoot launched the amnesty program – dubbed “A New Start Chicago” – in response to a series of articles from WBEZ and ProPublica Illinois that showed the debt from this type of ticket contributed to tens of thousands of vehicle impoundments, license suspensions and Chapter 13 bankruptcies.
So far, however, few drivers have signed up for city sticker ticket debt relief. Since Nov. 15, when the program began, approximately 4,700 applied to have about 9,400 tickets dropped. That’s about $3.5 million in debt that’s likely to get wiped out.
Altogether, city officials say, some 500,000 motorists have outstanding city sticker tickets. Those drivers owe the city more than $500 million in unpaid city sticker tickets issued since 1990.
Critics say the debt relief have said the rollout was rushed, and the online-only application process isn’t easily accessible for seniors or low-income families with limited internet access.
Mark Wallace, who runs a weekly meetup on the South Side for residents opposed to the city’s traffic-camera program, said several residents have asked him where to go for amnesty.
“A lot of people are used to going to a physical place because it’s confusing,” he said. “We had four people who came to our meeting specifically for that reason.”
City officials said they set up computers at City Hall and provided additional information at library branches and aldermanic offices to make the program more accessible. But they declined to acknowledge that there have been problems.
When asked by WBEZ whether the city could simply forgive unpaid sticker tickets for drivers who are currently in compliance with the sticker requirement, Cabanban said the city is “always working to make it easier for individuals to access the assistance that we provide and we have ever intention to continue making progress on automating more processes.”
She added: “With the new reforms, such as the discontinuation of driver’s license suspensions for non-driving violations and consecutive day ticketing, and affordable payment plan options in place, we are offering pathways to compliance so that motorists can avoid accruing a large amount of unpaid debt.
Information on all the city’s ticket reforms, including more affordable payment plans, is available at www.Chicago.gov/newstartchicago.
Elliott Ramos is WBEZ’s Data Editor. Follow him @ChicagoEl.