With an income of $114,913, Chicago aldermen are in the 95th percentile of all American workers.
Unlike Mayor Rahm Emanuel, they may not be 1 percenters, but they’re 5 percenters.
This explains why they believe a $100 speed camera ticket is a small price to pay for public safety. For them, it is.
Ald. Richard Mell’s confession that he received a $100 ticket for running a red light at California Street and Diversey Avenue became a running joke during Wednesday’s City Council debate. It’s easy for Mell to joke about $100, because he’s a millionaire spring manufacturer.
Mell went on to say that “some of our neighborhoods really, really desperately need something to slow people down, and if the only way we can get their attention is their pocket, so be it.”
Except that, for most Chicagoans, $100 is not pocket money. The average weekly grocery bill for a family of four is $118. So a ticket may mean the difference between feeding your family chicken for a month and feeding them macaroni and cheese. If you can’t pay -- and many families operate on such tight budgets they can’t shake loose $100 -- then it becomes a $200 ticket. Then your car is booted, and, if you can’t pay the fines, the city crushes it.
There's a good chance you’re going to get a red light ticket or a speed camera ticket. After one or two, the question becomes, “Can I afford to drive in this city?” Then it becomes, “If I can’t afford to drive here, what’s the point of living here?”
Years ago, while researching a story on the city’s boot program for the Chicago Reader, I met a Spanish-speaking auto body repairman in exactly that situation. He didn’t earn enough to cover parking fines and family expenses, so he let the tickets slide. So they doubled, and he owed $600. Another man was rushing home to arrange a loan on the Internet because he didn’t have the $1,000 he needed to cover his tickets.
“That’s why it’s so unfair,” he complained. “It’s the same fine, no matter how much you make....Most people who didn't pay [their tickets] didn't have the money in the first place.”
In that spirit, here’s what would be fair: index parking, speeding and red-light camera tickets to income. If you earn less than $20,000 a year, you pay $20. If you earn between $20,000 and $50,000, you pay $40. If you earn between $50,000 and $100,000 a year, you pay $80. And if, like an alderman, you earn more than $100,000 a year, you pay $200. That will ensure the fines hit everyone equally hard. Since the tickets are supposed to a deterrent to speeding, we have to make sure the wealthy feel it just as much as the indigent.
It’ll be like a graduated income tax. All 50 members of the City Council are Democrats, and if there’s one thing Democrats believe, it’s that the rich should pay more than the poor. So I’m sure they’ll embrace this idea.
Buy this book! Ward Room blogger Edward McClelland's book, Young Mr. Obama: Chicago and the Making of a Black President , is available Amazon. Young Mr. Obama includes reporting on President Obama's earliest days in the Windy City, covering how a presumptuous young man transformed himself into presidential material. Buy it now!