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Use Denver boot to help city collect on debts, state senator says

The Denver Boot car. File phoby Scott Stewart/Sun-Times

The Denver Boot on a car. File photo by Scott Stewart/Sun-Times

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Updated: March 28, 2013 6:33AM

Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s hard-line approach to dunning deadbeats has already boosted debt collection by $70 million a year.

If State Sen. Ira Silverstein (D-Chicago) has his way, Emanuel will have another debt collection tool at his disposal even more powerful than siphoning the state income tax refunds of scofflaws.

Silverstein has quietly introduced a bill in Springfield that would empower the city to slap the wheel-locking Denver boot on vehicles belonging to anyone who owes the city money and is the subject of a court judgment firmly establishing the debt. Other Illinois municipalities would have the power too.

Although his wife is a Chicago alderman loyal to Emanuel, Silverstein insisted that he was not doing the mayor’s bidding.

“I did not speak to anybody in the mayor’s office before this bill was introduced. In fact, the city found out about it, called me and said, `What are you doing?’” Silverstein said.

“This came to me from Adam Braun, a lobbyist representing some of the collection firms. Collection firms are trying to find a better avenue to collect money to help municipalities.”

Why add the dreaded Denver boot to the city’s arsenal of weapons against deadbeats?

“Everybody’s trying to raise money without raising taxes. This is just another tool to try to help municipalities collect money,” Silverstein said.

“If you’re sued for not paying your water bill and you think you might lose the car you need to get to work, you might come in and work out a payment plan. But there would have to be a court proceeding, a judgment with 30 days notice to vacate and a notice by mail.”

The Emanuel administration is “still reviewing” Silverstein’s bill and has “not yet taken a position” on the legislation, according to mayoral spokesperson Kathleen Strand.

Currently, booting in Chicago is limited to motorists with three or more unpaid parking tickets in “final determination status” or two unpaid parking or red light tickets in that category older than one year.

If the debt is not paid within 24 hours of booting, the vehicle can be towed to a city auto pound. It’s released only after all outstanding debts are paid, along with a $60 booting fee, $150 for the tow and storage fees of $10 a day for the first five days and $35 for every day after that.

Last year, a reluctant City Council gave 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 subsequently 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 last summer.

By year’s end, the siphoning of income tax refunds had generated $11 million, with half of the 66,000 people targeted living outside the city, according to City Comptroller Amer Ahmad.

On Tuesday, Silverstein acknowledged that the language in his booting bill is a little harsh and needs to be softened.

It would give deadbeats just 24 hours to pay up before the boot is applied. It would further empower municipalities to sell or auction the vehicle and use the proceeds to pay the debt.

“The 24-hour rule probably needs to be changed” and extended, the senator said.

Although the mayor is still evaluating Silverstein’s bill, it’s hard to imagine him opposing it.

On the day aldermen empowered him to dock state income tax refunds to collect unpaid fines, Emanuel emphatically argued that City Hall should do whatever it takes to collect outstanding debts.

“Law-abiding citizens cannot carry the freight for everybody else. That is wrong to do. A system cannot be created around allowing a permissible amount of cheating. It becomes epidemic,” the mayor said then.

“These are people who owed money to the city, and we were not doing our job, and we were putting a heavier burden on law-abiding citizens who are doing the responsible thing, and the system tilted in favor of cheating. … If you cheat the rest of the taxpayers and everybody else is abiding by the rules, we’re not gonna have the system favor you because of incompetence, inefficiency or because you can get away with it.”

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