Rockford Register Star
BYLINE: Corina Curry | Rockford Register Star, ROCKFORD REGISTER STAR
ROCKFORD — Aldermen are expected to start deliberating the merits of a new state law that would give them another way to collect fines from people who owe.
The Local Debt Recovery Program is run by the Illinois comptroller’s office. A new law passed late last year could let cities like Rockford use the state office as a way to seize money from people with outstanding debts.
If Rockford joins the program, any money that those folks could be expecting from the state — for example, in the form of a state income tax return, vendor payment or paycheck — would get rerouted to the city. Certain payments like public aid and secretary of state refunds are exempt.
Finance Director Chris Black has submitted a two-page memo and a seven-page draft intergovernmental agreement between the city of Rockford and the comptroller’s office for the City Council’s consideration.
Members of the council’s Finance and Personnel Committee are expected to weigh the pros and cons of the program at a meeting tonight at City Hall.
$13 million owed
In his memo, Black informs aldermen that the city is owed an estimated $13 million in unpaid debts consisting of parking tickets, code and zoning fines, ambulance fees, and unpaid water bills. The debt is less than 4 years old, and much of it — 56 percent — is ambulance fees, which the comptroller’s office won’t go after, Black explained, because of privacy issues.
Several municipalities have entered into agreements with the comptroller’s office, including Springfield, Aurora, Joliet and Chicago, Black wrote.
Municipalities do not have to pay to participate. They provide the state data on debtors. The comptroller’s office runs the data against a list of checks to be cut. If a match is detected, the person gets a letter instead of a check. The letter gives a person 60 days to protest the withholding.
If a debt is paid to a municipality through this process, the debtor is billed an additional $15 as an administrative fee.
If the City Council votes to join the program, the city and comptroller’s office would start with a test run. This would give the city a better idea of how much money could be recovered, Black wrote.
Parking tickets could be an area where the city could see increased debt collection, Black estimated in his memo.
At least one alderman, Venita Hervey, is concerned about how the process will work and whether “debtors” will get due process.
“If people owe fines, if they owe parking tickets, they have to pay them. If we can get that money by intercepting dollars from the state, I have no problem with it,” the 5th Ward Democrat said. “What I do have a problem with is these cases where the transfers of information have gone haywire and people are being told they owe debt that they’ve paid or don’t believe they owe at all.”
Hervey said she’ll definitely want to hear more about the protest process and hopes that the city is able to establish some kind of local avenue to object to a withholding.
“In some of these cases the burden should be on us to prove that the debt is owed,” she said, “not on the person to prove that they paid.”
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