By Elliott Ramos, WBEZ & Melissa Sanchez, ProPublica Illinois

The Chicago City Council on Wednesday approved the first reforms aimed at helping the city’s low-income motorists cope with ticket debt, with more significant changes potentially on the way.

The approved measures, tucked into Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s final city budget, chip away at a massive problem that has exploded during his tenure: debt and bankruptcies concentrated in black neighborhoods.

In a way, the new policies come full circle, as they seek to undo some of the damage done by a hike in the price of tickets for mandatory vehicle stickers introduced in the mayor’s first budget, in 2011.

Aldermen approved a pilot city sticker program designed to help low-income motorists comply with the municipal requirement and to avoid costly citations that have contributed to a bankruptcy boom in Chicago. City Clerk Anna Valencia proposed the program last month in response to ProPublica Illinois/WBEZ reporting on how a 2011 decision to increase the cost of the city sticker citation led to more debt but not much more revenue for the city.

The council also approved a measure from the city’s Law Department to wipe away some ticket debt for motorists who file for bankruptcy under Chapter 7. The measure seeks to curb the number of Chapter 13 bankruptcies filed here to deal with ticket debt, most of which fail to deliver debt relief.

The changes, while modest, signal a growing acknowledgment that Chicago’s reliance on fines and fees to generate revenue has come at a significant cost for some residents, particularly those from low-income, African-American neighborhoods.

For more than a year, ProPublica Illinois and WBEZ have been reporting on ticketing disparities and the impact of ticket debt on low-income black communities. Support for reform has grown steadily.

A coalition of nonprofit groups, including Community Organizing and Family Issues, the Chicago Jobs Council and the Woodstock Institute, has led the public call for an overhaul of the city’s ticketing and debt collection system.


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