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Cook County circuit clerk says city owes $13M in fees

Wednesday, June 20, 2018
Chciago Daily Law Bulletin
by David Thomas

For years, the Cook County Circuit Clerk’s office has argued that the city of Chicago owes the court millions of dollars in unpaid fees.

That disputed tab sits at $13.2 million, according to Jalyne R. Strong-Shaw, a spokeswoman for Circuit Clerk Dorothy A. Brown.

Now, state lawmakers have weighed in, siding with the city.

In the waning hours of its spring session, the General Assembly passed legislation stating municipalities and school districts do not have to pay a fee to file ordinance-enforcement actions, civil debt collections or other Administrative Review Law actions.

If Gov. Bruce Rauner signs the measure, the people charged with ordinance violations would pay the circuit clerk fees. The bill does not address the existing $13.2 million Brown and the city dispute.

“I don’t want to hear about that. You guys have to work that out,” said the bill’s chief Senate sponsor, Sen. John G. Mulroe.

Chicago uses its Department of Administrative Hearings to process individuals and those accused of violating ordinances. If parties refuse to pay fines entered against them in a hearing, the city brings the matter to the circuit court for enforcement.

Under Senate Bill 544, the debtor would have to pay the city’s court filing fees as well as the underlying judgment owed to the city.

Brown’s office is opposed to the measure, which was presented to lawmakers as a “trailer” to the court-fee overhaul proposed under House Bill 4594.

“The trailer bill (SB 544) is inherently unfair to the taxpayers of Cook County, other users of the circuit court of Cook County and the defendants from whom the city seeks to collect fines,” Strong-Shaw said in a statement.

“The clerk’s office’s position is that the fees of the court system could have been properly reformed without attaching a bill that allows the city of Chicago to file for free in cases where the taxpayer, the opposing party, is required to pay,” the statement says.

“To permit the city of Chicago to file for free means that taxpayers and other court users will have to shoulder the city’s burden,” she added.

Strong-Shaw said that because of the city’s refusal to pay these fines, the circuit clerk began requiring the city to pay its filing fees in advance.

As a result, the city has declined to file the enforcement actions with the circuit court.

If signed into law by Rauner, SB 544 would take effect “if and only if” Rauner also signs HB 4594.

Strong-Shaw said Brown’s office estimated it will lose $5 million in revenue each year due to the court-fee overhaul proposed by HB 4594. The circuit clerk did not oppose the passage of this bill.

But the office’s estimate did not also consider the impact of SB 544. With that bill’s changes, the county should expect to lose even more revenue, Strong-Shaw said.

A spokesman for the city’s Law Department said SB 544 clarifies that the city does not have to pay to file these kinds of cases.

“The pending state legislation, which is modeled on recommendations created by the bipartisan Court Fee Task Force, works to create uniformity across the state and clarify the long-standing practice of exempting certain filing fees by local governments in circuit court,” Law Department spokesman Bill McCaffrey said in a statement.

“Chicago is vested with the duty to enforce laws and ordinances, and, as such, it is important the law is clear that filing fees for those actions are exempt. The city was not required and did not pay these fees previously, and the new legislation ensures that is the case moving forward,” the statement says.

Strong-Shaw said the more than 200 municipalities and school districts in Cook County currently pay filing fees upfront or have some kind of intergovernmental agreement with Brown’s office.

Mulroe, a Chicago Democrat who was the chief Senate sponsor for both HB 4594 and the trailer bill, said Brown’s practice of charging local governments was unique throughout the state.

“We were just trying to codify what was in practice,” Mulroe said.

Mulroe said he doesn’t understand the clerk’s opposition to the bill out of concern for taxpayers.

“It’s an illogical argument, isn’t it? Someone’s going to pay. If the city is going to be charged with registering a judgment — the city is not their own independent person, it’s made up of taxes,” Mulroe said. “We’re trying to impose the money on people who are responsible for the debt, rather than the taxpayer.”

The legislation wouldn’t resolve existing balances between the city and court. Mulroe made it clear that’s not the state’s fight.

“I want to go forward, and I want the city to register some judgments that should have been paid, and I want the clerk’s office to get paid, too,” Mulroe said.

Strong-Shaw said the court clerk’s office has raised the issue over the years with Mayors Richard M. Daley and Rahm Emanuel as well as the Cook County Board of Commissioners and the state’s attorney.

In October, Brown’s office referenced the city’s alleged debt in a letter to Commissioner John P. Daley, chairman of the county board’s Finance Committee, seeking the board’s help to collect a then-$13.1 million balance.

Mulroe said the language in SB 544 was initially included in HB 4594, but he instead put it in a separate bill over worries the fight between the city and the clerk would doom the larger effort to overhaul court fees statewide.

Brown’s office, the city and Mulroe met with Rep. Steve Andersson, a Geneva Republican who was the chief House sponsor of HB 4594 and SB 544, in Senate President John J. Cullerton’s office in March.

Mulroe said the meeting ended with Cullerton telling both sides to propose legislative language resolving their dispute, while the clerk’s office said there was supposed to be a second meeting.

The city submitted legislative language, but the court clerk’s office didn’t at first, Mulroe said.

He filed the language on April 23; three days later, it passed the Senate. Mulroe said he didn’t hear from Brown’s office until May 21, when his staffer was contacted about the bill. But by that point, the bill had already passed out of the House Judiciary Committee.

“They weren’t as engaged in the process when the bill started to move through the legislature,” Mulroe said, noting that when the bill was heard in committee, the clerk’s office never registered its opposition.

Strong-Shaw said the office proposed language to Mulroe that “recommended a fee structure in which the court fees would be ordered by the court.”

The city and the court clerk’s office would then split any collection on a debt, up to the cost of the filing fee.

“It’s an alternative we could have discussed, but I just never heard it,” Mulroe said.

The bills have not been formally sent to Rauner for his signature.

Rachel Bold, a spokeswoman for Rauner, said the office is reviewing SB 544 and “consulting with relevant experts and will comment on them at the appropriate time.”

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