The idea of treating citizens like customers is a managerial touchstone in municipal governance. The city of Evanston, Illinois, is taking that idea literally, expecting its citizen-customers to pay their bills.

Under a recently implemented ordinance, the city withholds services from individuals or companies that owe it money. When people apply to get building or parking permits, animal licenses or beach passes, their names and addresses are run through a computer that checks whether they're on the citywide debtor list.

"Anything other than life-safety issues," such as police and fire, "we are not going to provide to those people who are basically not living up to their obligations to the city," says Wayne Moran, director of Evanston's administrative adjudication division.

Moran says that the program was responsible for some $11,000 worth of collection receipts during its first month. A lot of that money came from people paying off old parking tickets, but Moran expects some bigger-ticket property debts to be paid as well. That will not only make the city money--which it doesn't have to share with private collection agencies--but be used to improve living conditions in poorer sections of the city.

The idea that people should pay the city what they owe seems fair enough, says Jonathan Perman, executive director of the Evanston Chamber of Commerce. "The private sector has called on municipalities to run their operations in a more businesslike manner," he says. "This initiative emulates the practices of many businesses who don't provide services when their clients are in arrears."