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Red-light racket coming apart

January 7th, 2020 2:11 PM

By Dan Haley

Editor and Publisher

By the time the ticket collection noise reaches the warning stage — the pay up or the state of Illinois will deduct your red-light ticket fee from your tax refund — I always enjoy sending a note back telling the municipalities of Hillside, North Riverside, Berwyn, and River Forest, where over the years I have collected a small handful of such tickets, to go at it, that they will never see a dime directly from me.

"You are running a racket that has nothing to do with safe driving and is all about stealing money from citizens." 

That's the note I send. I never get an answer. But that's OK. The satisfaction is in stating clearly that cash-strapped towns and villages have turned to a scheme to immorally extract money from ordinary people. Yep, these towns have exploding police and fire pensions to pay and this is at the top of the list on how they are making those ballooning payouts. 

I sympathize with the financial squeeze these burgs are in. We cover their budget processes. The pain is real. Property taxes are maxed. Sales taxes are softening. Non-home rule towns are limited in what else they can pile fees onto. 

So when slicksters from the politically juiced red-light camera companies showed up a few years ago, they promised a whole new stream of revenue with no upfront costs and which, in the main, prey on drivers passing through from other places, or coming to shop in their town — in other words not your own voting residents — the towns couldn't sign on fast enough. 

They gave balderdash rationalizations about how this would make driving safer. All the numbers captured to date reflect that red-light cameras don't find many people blowing through red lights. The vast majority of drivers are ticketed for not coming to a complete stop before turning right on red. Easy pickings, but not much of a traffic hazard.

So on Monday it gave me great pleasure to read that Susana Mendoza, the Illinois comptroller, is taking the state of Illinois out of the business of collecting red-light ticket fees. 

"The comptroller's office isn't going to be in the business" of helping "a program that's broken and corrupt," Mendoza told the Sun-Times in a recent interview. 

Broken and corrupt. That sums it up. 

How important has the state's role been in collecting unpaid red-light tickets via withheld tax refunds? Here are numbers from North Riverside, which has long shared the bounty with Berwyn from red-light cameras at the intersection of Harlem and Cermak: 

As direct payments to municipalities from ticketed drivers have fallen over the past three years — fewer tickets, fed up or broke drivers — the state of Illinois has stepped in to fill North Riverside's coffers. 

In 2017, the comptroller's office collected $358,544 for North Riverside. In 2019 the collection assistance from the state leapt to $1,328,500. That dwarfed the roughly $980,000 North Riverside collected directly. 

Three years ago, Wednesday Journal and our sister papers in Forest Park and North Riverside, did an expansive series on the rich take that River Forest, Forest Park, North Riverside and Berwyn were making on red-light cameras stretched out along Harlem Avenue. 

The numbers were eye-popping. The political intrigue behind the handful of red-light camera operators and local politicians was obvious. 

Over the past year, the Sun-Times and the Tribune have powerfully latched on to that story. Federal prosecutors have been raiding the offices of local pols and former pols as they work to prove the connections between the camera companies and municipalities. Last week came reporting of scads of cash found in the home office safes of officials in McCook and Oakbrook Terrace.

Careers are rightly being ruined. Jail looms. Good.

And good for the state of Illinois for choosing not to be an accomplice in fleecing drivers. 

Contact:
Email: dhaley@wjinc.com Twitter: @OPEditor

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