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Government workers cough up $1.1 million in overdue fines, bills

Mayor Rahm Emanuel presents his 2012 budget Wednesday October 12 2011 City Council. | Jean Lachat~Sun-Times

Mayor Rahm Emanuel presents his 2012 budget, Wednesday, October 12, 2011, at City Council. | Jean Lachat~Sun-Times

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Updated: December 19, 2011 8:25AM

Local government employees with overdue parking tickets and water bills have coughed up $1.1 million in the five weeks since Mayor Rahm Emanuel threatened to fire or suspend them if they didn’t settle their debts.

Within a week of the mayor’s ultimatum, more than 1,210 city employee scofflaws had scratched their names off the deadbeat list — either by paying their debts in full or entering into payment plans. In extreme cases, the Law Department orders “involuntary payroll deductions,” officials said.

As of last Friday, 19 of the city’s 36 departments had no employees with outstanding debt. That’s compared to just three departments at the start of October.

The percentage of city employees who owe the city money has dropped by nearly five percentage points — from 7.1 percent to 2.3 percent. At other agencies of local government, the debtors list has dropped from eight percent of the workforce to six percent.

Emanuel highlighted the progress Thursday at a cabinet meeting called to keep the heat on his department heads to deliver on the promises made in the mayor’s $6.3 billion budget.

“This is encouraging progress, but there is still more to do,” the mayor said in a press release.

“When people across Chicago are working hard to make ends meet, it simply is not acceptable that city employees have $3 million in outstanding debt owed to the city’s taxpayers.”

In an interview outside the mayor’s office, City Comptroller Amer Ahmad credited “relentless follow-up” for the $1.1 million in collections.

“We’ve been calling each one of the commissioners and talking to every one of the employees and giving them options on getting payments plans or paying in full. Three million dollars is $3 million, and we’re gonna collect all of it,” Ahmad said.

“Before there were any threats, we talked about how to get people into compliance. … There were some people who didn’t even know they had outstanding debts. We were able to collect those very quickly. The commissioners are really focused on this. We have weekly conversations. Everyone is on this.”

Last month, Emanuel sent a letter to city department heads and the chiefs of other local government agencies itemizing the debt owed by their employees and giving them until the end of the month to crack the whip.

With nearly $3 million worth of in-house debt, 2,380 city employee deadbeats and 5,883 sister agency scofflaws faced an ultimatum: pay up or risk lengthy suspension and even termination.

The City Hall scofflaw scandal broke in October 1996, when then City Clerk Jim Laski blew the whistle on $2.36 million in unpaid water bills and parking tickets. The debt incurred by city employees alone subsequently ballooned to $3.5 million.

Laski went on to become the highest-ranking public official to be convicted in the Hired Truck scandal.

Also on Thursday, Chicago firefighters and paramedics signed on to a so-called “wellness” plan that calls for city employees to see their monthly health insurance premiums rise by $50 unless they manage chronic health problems such as obesity, diabetes and high-blood pressure.

That leaves the Fraternal Order of Police as one of the only hold-outs. Emanuel is counting on saving $20 million from the wellness program in 2012.

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