EDITORIAL, CHICAGO TRIBUNE | LINK TO ARTICLE
Mayor Rahm Emanuel wants the owners of SUVs and minivans to pay a greater share of the cost of filling Chicago's potholes, but he can't lay his hands on the data that show bigger cars cause more damage.
There's another group that's not paying its share, though. That would be the residents who don't bother to get the required city sticker, casually exempting themselves from the "wheel tax" that pays to maintain side streets.
City Clerk Susana Mendoza thinks identifying those scofflaws — and slapping them with hefty fines — might generate enough money to avoid the fee increase outlined in the mayor's 2012 budget.
"Why just pick on the soccer mom?" she said when she learned of the mayor's proposed hikes.
Emanuel's plan is to raise the cost of stickers for heavier passenger vehicles by $15, to $135. But he also wants to lower the weight limit, bumping roughly 184,000 minivans, SUVs and larger sedans into that group. Those drivers would see their fee jump by $60. Owners of vehicles weighing less than 4,000 pounds would continue to pay $75.
Trouble is, there's no evidence that larger passenger vehicles are harder on roads than smaller ones, as the mayor suggests. The author of a study he cited to support that claim said his research didn't support it. Most of the damage is caused by heavy commercial trucks and buses.
The "wheel tax" is one of those civic burdens that make law-abiding citizens feel like chumps. Every year when the renewal notice arrives in the mail, Gallant coughs up the fee, scrapes off the old sticker and applies the new one while Goofus looks on in amusement. Goofus has never bought a sticker, and nobody has ever come after him.
But Mendoza is on his case. By cross-checking the secretary of state's vehicle registration database against her office's records, the clerk can spot cars whose owners haven't bought the required city stickers. That's typically done as the office prepares to send out renewal notices — once a year, in other words.
More frequent data sharing, more aggressive enforcement and bigger fines would shepherd the stragglers into compliance. The office also plans to send "welcome kits" to new residents, letting them know they're supposed to buy stickers. The cost is pro-rated for residents who move to the city or buy a new car mid-year. But cheaters have to pay full price, plus a $40 late fee. They're also subject to a $120 ticket.
The clerk's office doesn't know how many scofflaws are out there, but about 200,000 tickets were issued for sticker violations last year. Most tickets are written after an officer from the police or revenue department or the clerk's enforcement team spots a vehicle on the street and runs a computer search of the tag number to see if it's registered in the city. It's hit or miss, and it's not fair.
It reminds us of that other chump tax, the city dog license. The overwhelming majority of dog owners have figured out that in Chicago, licensing your pet is optional. If you do the right thing, it costs you $5. If you don't, it costs you nothing.
The Anti-Cruelty Society estimates there are 583,000 dogs in the city. The clerk's office, which sells the tags, says 27,918 of them are registered.
So we were delighted to learn that Mendoza wants to do something about that, too. She's working with the Animal Care and Control Commission on a plan to boost compliance. Education first, followed by systematic enforcement and fines of $30 to $200.
Pet licensing promotes public health: Owners can't get a tag unless the dog is vaccinated against rabies, and they pay a premium if it isn't spayed or neutered. None of that matters, of course, if pet owners don't bother with the license and the city doesn't bother with enforcement.
A few years ago, city aldermen considered requiring dog owners to microchip their pets — or pay fines of $50 to $200. That would have amounted to yet another tax on residents who obey the law, and a free pass for those who don't. Enough of that, already.
But back to those potholes. The mayor's plan would raise $14.8 million, which would fill 160,000 of them. We're pretty sure we've bounced through half that many just this week. But we think Mendoza has an excellent point: Instead of raising the cost of the sticker on that law-abiding mom-mobile, let's go after the cars that don't have stickers at all.