Chicago, IL

Billions of Dollars in Unpaid Debt Owed Chicago Causes Major Problems for Mayor Johnson's Budget

Natalie Frank, Ph.D.

Chicago owed more than $6.4 billion in unpaid fees, fines, debts, piling up since 1990, would pay 40% of Mayor's $16.77 billion budget,amounting average debt of $3,026 for each Chicago adult

As Mayor Brandon Johnson navigates steep budget challenges, it's been revealed that Chicago City Hall is contending with over $6.4 billion in unpaid fees, fines, and debts dating back to 1990. This staggering amount, equivalent to almost 40% of the city's budget, prompts questions about why the city has not pursued debt collection more vigorously over the past three decades.

The unpaid tab encompasses various categories, with nearly $2.9 billion in administrative hearing debt, over $2.3 billion in outstanding parking, speed, and red-light-camera tickets, and almost $723 million in unpaid water bills. The average debt per adult resident of the city stands at approximately $3,026. Despite the significant sum owed, officials note that a smaller group of scofflaws, many from outside Chicago, contributes to the most substantial unpaid debts.

The city faces challenges in collecting these outstanding amounts, with City Comptroller acknowledging that a considerable portion is unlikely to ever be recovered. However, given the projected budget shortfalls and increasing budget troubles in the years ahead, officials agree that more efforts should be directed towards enhancing debt collections.

The unpaid debts include violations from administrative court hearings, parking tickets, red-light-camera tickets, speed-camera tickets, unpaid water bills, ambulance bills, tax debts, and building inspection fees. The most significant share of unpaid debts comes from administrative court hearings, with annual unpaid debts exceeding $100 million over 19 of the past 25 years, totaling close to $2.9 billion.

While collecting aged debts proves challenging, the city primarily targets recent scofflaws who owe substantial amounts and have the means to settle their debts. Comptroller emphasizes that many of these debtors are not from Chicago and utilize legal mechanisms to evade responsibility.

Efforts to collect debts internally involve sending notices, seizing vehicles, scrutinizing business licenses, and more. If internal measures prove ineffective, the city refers cases to collections agencies with the authority to file liens and garnish wages and bank accounts. Despite these efforts, cases can linger in courts indefinitely.

City officials acknowledge the need for more proactive measures to recover outstanding debts, especially as the city explores new revenue sources. As Chicago City Hall grapples with this substantial financial challenge, the importance of efficient debt collection becomes increasingly evident for the effective functioning of city government programs.


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