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Chicago Mayor’s Budget Relies 15% More on Fines and Fees

Brandon Johnson had previously critiqued how the city has used a tax structure that relies on property taxes, fines and fees, and yet his 2024 proposed budget counts on $46 million more in fines and fees than this year.

A bicyclist maneuvers past a parked delivery truck parked in a bicycle lane
A bicyclist maneuvers past a parked delivery truck parked in a bicycle lane in the 1500 block of North Damen Avenue, Nov. 15, 2023, in Chicago.
(John J. Kim/Chicago Tribune/TNS)
When Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson introduced his 2024 budget, he noted the city had for too long balanced such spending plans on the backs of working people and vowed to end the practice.

A “$95 city sticker or a $100 parking ticket weighs more heavily on the family that earns $30,000 a year versus a family that earns $150,000 a year,” he said, and the city had “relied too long on a tax structure that heavily burdens our lowest income residents, and is too reliant on property taxes, fees and fines and rates.”

And yet, Johnson’s 2024 financial package counts on $46 million more in fines and fees than this year, a 15 percent increase.

In all, the mayor expects to bring in $348 million from things like parking tickets, red-light and speed enforcement fines, moving violations, booting fees, sanitation code violations and housing court fines.

When asked about the sources of new revenue, Johnson administration budget officials initially highlighted enforcement of a new Smart Streets ordinance designed to protect downtown bicyclists and keep bus traffic moving, a focus on punishing car-driving scofflaws that would play well with his progressive base.

But the Smart Streets program — an automated ticketing system that will be limited to areas in and around downtown — has not yet launched. The city later clarified it expects to bring in only $5 million from it in 2024.

Johnson’s increased reliance on regressive financial penalties is “concerning for a number of reasons,” said Stephanie Agnew, communications director for the Chicago Appleseed Center for Fair Courts and the Chicago Council of Lawyers — organizations that have been critical of the city’s ticketing practices.

They are rarely worth the cost of enforcement, she said, and “there’s little evidence showing these kinds of financial penalties are effective to deter crime or rule-breaking.”

Even the city’s use of cameras and automated ticketing to identify and ticket people is problematic, Agnew said, pointing to a 2022 ProPublica investigation that found households in majority Black and Hispanic ZIP codes in Chicago “received tickets at around twice the rate of those in white areas,” despite cameras being roughly evenly distributed across the city.

Fine and fee revenues today are lower than a decade ago: In 2014, during Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration, those charges made up roughly 13 percent of the main pot of city revenues, known as the corporate fund.

But thanks in part to a concerted effort to reform the city’s ticketing practices — which several investigations found hit low-income violators hardest and were disproportionately owed by drivers of color — budget officials moved to offer debt relief and restructure how fines and fees were levied.

The share of corporate fund revenues from fines and fees is projected to reach a low of about 5.6 percent this year as part of Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s final budget.

Johnson’s proposal brings that up to just over 6 percent. The mayor’s $16.77 billion 2024 budget passed the City Council last week, 41-8.

In an emailed statement last month, finance spokesman Jeff Garceau told the Tribune the city anticipated raising more through Smart Streets and “general enforcement activities,” though officials did not specify which ones.

Lightfoot oversaw several reforms to city ticketing practices, including reducing and limiting fines and fees for impounded cars, ending the doubling of city sticker tickets and stopping driver’s license suspensions for non-driving violations. But she also instituted a lower threshold for speed camera violations in 2021, bringing in $121 million in additional ticket revenue during the first two years of operations, according to an ABC 7 Chicago investigation.

Johnson does plan to make one of Lightfoot’s ticketing reforms permanent: the Clear Path Relief program. That reduces the debt that low-income drivers — at or below 300 percent of the federal poverty line — have to pay off for old parking, compliance, red-light and speed camera tickets. Eligible drivers can pay for the original fine amount for tickets issued over the past three years, while all debt older than three years is waived. New tickets for enrollees would be reduced by 50 percent for the first year in the program if they’re paid on time.

The Smart Streets pilot, which passed the City Council in the spring, would allow automated ticketing for parking violations in bike lanes, bus-only lanes, crosswalks, bus stops and no-parking zones. The stated goal was to keep bus traffic moving and protect bicyclists from having to merge into car lanes. Violators could be snapped by cameras mounted on poles downtown or from special cameras in CTA buses.

But despite being on the books since March, Smart Streets is not yet up and running.

“The City is still in the process of building out cross-departmental operating procedures and has not yet begun issuing tickets,” Department of Transportation spokeswoman Erica Schroeder said in an email. “We’re working to have the program ready to roll out early next year.”

Even when cameras are up, no tickets will be issued for the first 30 days of the program, only warnings. And the pilot is limited to the city center: The boundary extends from Lake Michigan to Ashland Avenue on the west, North Avenue on the north and Roosevelt Road on the south.

The Active Transportation Alliance, an advocacy group that has criticized the regressive nature of the city’s other fine and fee practices and supports extra protections for bicyclists and pedestrians, has called for balance between the clear safety benefits of enforcement and equity impacts.

“We believe the (Smart Streets) pilot is a great chance to collect some actual data and have a more informed policy conversation about the appropriate role of automated enforcement on our streets,” the Alliance’s advocacy director, Jim Merrell, told the Tribune.

As part of the Smart Streets proposal, low-income drivers would be eligible for reduced-priced tickets and other debt relief through the Clear Path Relief program.

Asked about regressivity concerns, Ald. Andre Vasquez, 40th, defended Smart Streets. “When people bring up red-light or speed cameras, specifically, they’re like, well, it impacts Black and Brown folks more than it does others. So do crashes.”

But he said he would like to again look at a graduated fee structure based on income. “I think that’s something now, with a new administration, that we can revisit and see if there’s an opportunity to partner.”

While Merrell noted “obstructed bike lanes are a serious safety hazard and obstructed bus lanes slow down transit that working people rely on,” both he and Agnew said the city would be better off investing in structural solutions than ticketing its way out of the problem.

“We really need a broader conversation about the health and racial equity impacts of these issues and our policy responses,” Merrell said. “And we need to be talking about the role infrastructure like more robust protected bike lanes and bus lanes can play in making enforcement unnecessary.”

©2023 Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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