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Rahm’s hard line on parking, traffic tickets pays off with $70M

Amer Ahmad (pictured April 2011) resigned as Chicago's comptroller July.  |  Rich Hein~Sun-Times

Amer Ahmad (pictured in April 2011) resigned as Chicago's comptroller in July. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

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Updated: November 9, 2012 6:10AM

Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s hard-line approach to dunning deadbeats has boosted debt collection by $70 million this year — twice as much as anticipated — fueling the mayor’s promise to hold the line on taxes, fines and fees in 2013.

“We’ve done a much better job in the area of debt collection. The city is able to balance the budget without a tax increase because of some of these debt collection tools,” said City Comptroller Amer Ahmad.

The most effective tool used to dun deadbeats into submission has been the most controversial one.

Earlier this year, the City Council gave the State Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka’s office the go-ahead to put a brick on the state income tax refunds of more than 100,000 Illinois residents and businesses with overdue Chicago parking tickets, red-light camera citations and judgments rendered by city hearing officers dating back to 2005.

Emanuel used $8.5 million from that crackdown, which critics called over-the-top, to hire 50 more police officers and keep 20,000 more young people occupied this summer.

Now, Ahmad is disclosing that the siphoning of income tax refunds will generate $11 million by year’s end. Half of those 66,000 people live outside the city.

“For those people who have been skirting the law and owe debt to the city, it’s not harsh to try to collect” by deducting it from their income tax refunds, he said.

“[In the past], we would call them. We would send them letters. But, somebody who doesn’t live in the city typically ignores our requests. [Now], they can’t ignore it because we took the money out of their tax refund.”

The city’s 20 tax enforcement group auditors also “hit it out of the park,” as the comptroller put it, by using additional training, new software and “analytics tools” to bring in $68.5 million, up from a projected $30 million. Another $10 million was generated by putting “holds” on the business, chauffeur, livery and taxi licenses held by deadbeats.

Still more fertile ground — to the tune of $6 million — was provided by the $50 million-a-year debt and 37.5 percent collection rate from city ambulance fees.

“We focused on the insurers and payers we know we can go after, like private insurance companies, Medicare and Medicaid. And we submitted those claims in a more timely manner,” Ahmad said.

“In the past, these bills would not be sent to payers for 120 or 180 days. After that long, you reduce your chances of being able to collect. We were focused on more timely submission within 90 days. Just that one change was able to generate over $6 million. Getting better information from patients and submitting that information while it’s still fresh — that’s the recipe for being able to collect on these claims.”

Chicago began charging for ambulance service in the 1980s and has struggled to collect those fees ever since.

In 2009, then-Mayor Richard M. Daley nearly doubled ambulance fees — from $325 and $8 a mile to $600 and $13 a mile for basic life support and from $400 and $8 a mile to $700 and $13 a mile for advanced life support. Nonresidents were asked to pay $100 on top of that.

But weeks before the increases took effect, Chicago taxpayers were forced to give back $6.9 million in fees already collected for ambulance transport. Those fees had been collected from Medicare during the five-year period ending in September 2005.

Fifty paramedics were disciplined for making billing mistakes. All paramedics and emergency medical technicians were retrained.

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