When Mayor Rahm Emanuel put together his first budget in 2011, he sent a not-so-subtle message to city workers who owed City Hall for parking tickets, water bills and other fees and fines: Pay up or you could be suspended or fired.
"I am creating a culture of accountability in city government," Emanuel said at the time. "It simply is not acceptable that city employees have $3 million in outstanding debt owed to Chicago's taxpayers."
While the mayor made initial progress in getting city workers to make good, those scofflaws now collectively owe more than they did when Emanuel focused on the issue. The debt, which once ballooned to as much as $3.8 million, now stands at nearly $3.4 million, city records show.
All told, 5,584 city employees owe, nearly 6 percent of Chicago's public payroll. The totals include workers at the city's 32 departments, but also the five so-called sister agencies: the CTA, CPS, City Colleges of Chicago, the Chicago Housing Authority and the Chicago Park District, all of which are under the mayor's control.
Officials with CPS, the CTA and mayor's office blamed the pile of past-due bills in part on collective bargaining agreements with unions. Those contracts, they said, protect employees from discipline for failing to pay their debts and prevent the city from garnishing their wages.
Such union deals, however, were in place when the mayor announced a plan to recoup $3 million in city employee debt in 2011 with the threat of disciplinary action. Asked how many city employees — union or otherwise — the mayor's administration had suspended or fired for not making good on city debts, Emanuel spokeswoman Kelley Quinn said those numbers weren't available.
"Mayor Emanuel takes the issue of employee indebtedness very seriously, and has communicated to all department and sister agency heads to be vigilant about addressing the problem," Quinn said in a statement. "While we cannot stop employees from incurring debt, we can be steadfast in ensuring that they pay the money they owe."
Emanuel first targeted city worker debt in October 2011 as he worked to close what his administration estimated was a $635 million budget deficit. While the $2.96 million city employees owed at the time made up a small fraction of the $6 billion city spending plan the mayor would pitch, Emanuel stressed the issue before, during and after his budget proposal.
Targeting City Hall scofflaws not only was fiscally prudent and low-hanging fruit for Emanuel, but the mayor used the issue to push the message that after 22 years of Richard Daley, someone new was in charge.
"If you owe a parking ticket, you owe a bill, you have to pay," Emanuel said when he announced his crackdown. "The free ride is over for everybody."
A week later, the mayor included the "free ride is over" line in his inaugural budget address to the City Council. A month later, the mayor announced that in just five weeks, his administration had collected more than $1 million owed by city employees.
"City government must put the taxpayer before the city payroll," Emanuel said at the time. "This is encouraging progress, but there is still more to do."
City worker scofflaw debt bottomed out at $1.4 million in January 2012. But as the focus on the problem faded, the unpaid bills started to grow again, even as City Hall and related agencies shed nearly 2,400 employees.
The city employee scofflaw situation reflects a pattern that has emerged with some Emanuel initiatives: issue a series of news releases on the same topic to convey a sense of momentum and put out numbers showing initial progress that's not always sustained.
Past Tribune stories have shown a similar dynamic unfold on the administration's overstated progress on shrinking food deserts, overestimated savings from switching the city's garbage collection system, inflated job creation numbers at Emanuel's frequent corporate announcements, delayed projects at his Chicago Infrastructure Trust and the mayor's billing of a nonexistent "children's fund" for spending speed camera revenue.
City Hall had an employee debt collection system in place under Daley, but Emanuel sought to bolster the effort, Quinn said.
The Finance Department runs computer-generated reports each week to identify employees who owe money for water, parking and fines from administrative hearings on issues such as building violations. The administration then sends notices to employees at their homes, Quinn said.
During the past year, city officials have secured $5 million in employee debt that is either paid in full, in the midst of a payment plan or under wage garnishment, Quinn said. The Emanuel administration, however, counts the debt resolved even if all of the money owed has yet to be repaid. That means the current citywide debt of $3.4 million likely is higher, although Quinn did not provide a number for how many employees are in payment plans or under wage garnishment.
When Emanuel announced his scofflaw crackdown, he noted that employees could be suspended or fired. City Hall workers could face a 10-day suspension for owing less than $250, a 15-day suspension for owing $250 to $500 and a 29-day suspension for owing $500 to $1,000. Workers who owed $1,000 or more could be fired, according to the mayor's office. Quinn, however, said those provisions don't necessarily apply to the five sister agencies Emanuel controls because each has its own policies.