Chicago launched its Property Tax Relief Program this year, promising a $25-$200 grant to "qualifying homeowners." I completed my application, mailed it in by the March 31 deadline, and the other day received an envelope from the city's Tax Assistance Center. But inside was a letter saying my application could not be processed because I owed the city a "debt." It was an unpaid parking ticket. With interest, it came to $73.20.
If I had questions, the letter said, I should call 312-744-PARK, Chicago's ticket help line.
This confused me. I've received only one parking ticket this year, and I paid it online three days later. So I called the help line and said I was paid up. The clerk was friendly enough. She asked for my driver's license number, which I provided.
"I've had a huge number of calls today, but you've been the second easiest case so far," she said.
I asked her to explain, and she said the driver's license number hadn't been popping up for most callers. Then she had to search by name or some other way. But the number on my license came right up. So did all the information from the ticket. The infraction: parking/standing prohibited anytime.
And the license plate number. And the make of the car.
"V-O-L-K. That's a Volkswagen," she said.
"I don't own a Volkswagen," I said. "Never have."
Then she read me the original amount due—$30—and the place and time the ticket was issued: 5 N. Wabash at 8:47 AM on July 26. Of 1997.
"I had one woman call today, and her parking ticket was from 1986," the clerk said.
I looked more closely at my letter from the Tax Assistance Center. It asked me to send a check "to the address indicated on the notice that originally notified you of the debt . . . please include your original notice with your payment."
This is crazy, I told her.
"There is no statute of limitations on parking tickets," she said.
"How far back are you going?" I said.
"Back to 1980," she said.
Jimmy Carter was president then. It was the year Mount St. Helens erupted. Jane Byrne was mayor. The Beta-VHS war was on.
"Do you see how ridiculous this is?" I said. No reply. I repeated my question. No reply. I asked once more.
"Ma'am, I really can't comment," she said.
The next day I trekked to the first floor of City Hall, where a Department of Revenue rep told me how it is. She said parking tickets, water bills, or anything else owed to the city would hold up the property-tax grant. She printed out my ticket history and the details of the 1997 ticket. I'd been issued four other tickets in the intervening years (2004, 2005, 2008 and 2010) and had paid them promptly.
"I never received any notices about this 1997 ticket," I said. "I want to contest it."
She handed me a list of the hearing centers and told me the closest one was at 400 W. Superior.
"They have to give you a hearing if you make it in the door before they close at 4:30 PM," she said.
I hopped in a taxi and squeezed in the door at 4:25.
The security guard pointed to the hours listed in the front window. Hearings had ended at 4. Riding home on the el, I racked my brain for anything that would have brought me downtown that July morning in 1997. My job was miles from the Loop. Besides, I'd worked out that it was a Saturday. And I sleep late on Saturday. Did I have friends in town? Some festival? Nothing came to mind.
The next day, I decided to try my luck at the hearing center nearest my home, the one at 2550 W. Addison. While I waited in line, the taxi driver in front of me requested a hearing for a red light camera ticket.
"The mayor, he wants my $100 so he can plant more flowers," the taxi driver muttered as he left.
At the front counter I produced the printout with the ticket information I'd gotten from the Department of Revenue the day before, and I told the clerk they'd said I could have a hearing.
No, you can't, she said. A hearing officer wandering by threw his two cents in.
"You can't have a hearing," he said. "Who told you that you could?"
"The woman at the Department of Revenue," I said. "She gave me this copy of the ticket."
"This is from 1997. You can't contest it now."
"But I just heard about it. I never got the ticket, or received any notices."
"You need the original ticket. This is not the ticket."
"This what they pulled. It says V-O-L-K. And I don't drive a Volkswagen. I drive a Volvo."
"The clerk must have typed it in wrong. It says VOLK? Well, that must be Volvo, not Volkswagen."
"V-O-L-V is Volvo," I said. I'd asked a policeman.
Another hearing officer on break strolled over. She listened in for a bit. The first hearing officer pointed to my Department of Revenue printout and asked if it showed my license plate number. I said it did.
"You probably have two cars," he said. "The other one must have this license plate."
"I own one car," I said. "The same one since 1996. It's a Volvo, and it's out in the parking lot. You can come out and look at it with me."
The woman hearing officer sauntered off, shaking her head.
"This ticket is invalid," I said to the one who remained. "If the make of the vehicle is wrong the ticket is dismissed."
"Who told you that?" he said.
I pulled out the front-page story in the August 17 Sun-Times, about a leaked memo to Chicago police district commanders. It was from the Department of Revenue, and it told the commanders that parking ticket revenue was down for the first seven months of 2010, and the city would lose serious revenue if a lot more tickets weren't issued by the end of the year. I turned to page two and began reading:
"Tickets are spoiled—or invalidated—when the information on the ticket is wrong. That can mean anything from an incorrect address to the wrong make or model of a vehicle."
"You have to have the original ticket for that. Besides, it's too late."
"But I never received a ticket!" I said.
"Well, prove that you lived at the address shown here in 1997. And that your car was registered there."
I showed him my Volvo title from 1997, the 1997 city sticker receipt, and a 2009 license plate receipt. I said I had a manila folder full of documents about my car and my address.
"But you don't have the ticket. Where's the ticket?" he said.
"I keep telling you, I never received it," I said.
"Do you even know what a parking ticket looks like?"
"Yes, I do," I said, as he pointed to a cup of orange-and-white parking tickets. "And I never got issued the ticket. Or was sent any notices."
"Prove that you didn't."
I said that maybe I should just go talk to a newspaper.
"What paper?" he said.
"Any paper," I said.
Finally he took out a multipart form and slid it across the desk: a "Motion to Set Aside Default." He told me to write "never received notices" as the reason. I told him I'd add "wrong vehicle make," but he said no, just put that I didn't receive the notices. I took the form and went home.
Somewhere along the line it occurred to me that if this was a story that deserved telling, I should tell it myself. After all, I'm a freelance writer—that's why I'm still driving a 14-year-old car.
Having recast myself as a relentless fact-finder, I looked up Illinois law. According to 720 ILCS 5/3-5, the statue of limitations is three years for a felony (with exceptions for really serious crimes) and 18 months for a misdemeanor. Someone could snatch a purse and rest easy in 36 months. Yet I was haunted by a parking ticket from the previous century.
I continued to grapple with the mystery of why a car with my plates would have shown up downtown on a Saturday morning in 1997. The ticket had been issued at Washington and Wabash. What would this car have been doing there? Was I replenishing my supply of Frango Mints at Marshall Field's?
I came up with one remote possibility—my dentist had an office in the area. But really, how often does one go to the dentist? I called his office. They checked their records. Uh oh! It seemed I had an appointment the day the ticket was issued.
But would I have parked in a no parking/no standing zone to get a filling? I'd like to think not. At any rate, I definitely didn't park there in any V-O-L-K.
I assessed my position in light of Chicago's Parking and Compliance Violation Bill of Rights, an important civil-liberties document I'd discovered online. As I read it, the Bill of Rights gave me one more card to play. Under "Enforcement," the city promises: "Motorists have the right to improved traffic flow and public safety as a result of the City of Chicago actively pursuing penalties and other collection activities against debtors."
Chicago was actively pursuing me. Maybe I would tell the city: show me your improved traffic flow, then we'll talk.
Or maybe I'd just pay the ticket. According to my calculations, I was in line for a grant of $75 under the Property Tax Relief Program. So I'd still net a cool $1.80.
As I wrestled with these alternatives, I happened to go back to the dentist Friday, still in the same old place. I prudently parked my V-O-L-V in a valet lot. A few minutes after I got home an e-mail arrived from the Department of Revenue. My 13-year-old ticket had been dismissed.
It helps to have a solid case. It might also help to be writing a story, but who can say?