By Scott Jacobs

You can debate whether Chicago is better off with superheroes on its city vehicle sticker instead gang signs, but who needs it? Who needs to plaster up the front windshield of your car with kiddie art projects better suited for a refrigerator door? Who needs the hassle of peeling the sticker off the paper onto dirt free glass, or worse, the torture of scraping it off with a razor after it has expired? When you come right down to it, who needs city stickers at all?

A $100 Million Cash Machine

Chicago, to be sure, needs the revenue that city stickers generate. The $100 million Chicago collects from residents to register their car with the city goes a long way toward plugging gaps in the annual city budget. But what if there is a better way to get it? What if there is a way to collect more money, spend less doing it and eliminate those unsightly stickers entirely?

Think about it. What information is there on a city sticker that isn’t already in the database attached to your car’s Illinois license plate? Your name, your address, even your neighborhood parking zone can be stuck into a barcode and attached to a license plate as easily as a license plate renewal sticker. Make it fluorescent orange for all vehicles registered in Chicago, and police can see it as they drive past––or notice its absence––as easily as anything in the corner of the passenger side front window. My modest proposal, in short, is to let the state of Illinois handle Chicago vehicle registration as part of the license plate application process.

Easier for Drivers

What would this mean for Chicago drivers? If you live in Chicago and buy a new car, you now have to apply to the state for a license plate and the city for a city sticker. Why not let car owners handle both tasks in a single application? And when your annual plate comes up for renewal, why not have the state automatically include all the information, and renewal fees, on a single form? Change the details if you will, or just send in one check and you’re done.

Is this going to put an extra burden on state workers? Hardly. Already the secretary of state offers a variety of special plates for special fees. You can purchase a standard license plate for $99. Or for a little extra, you can buy a special plate that identifies you as an Eagle Scout ($126), a Firefighter ($116), a Master Mason ($124), an Organ Donor ($124), Sheet Metal Worker ($124), or Supporter of Youth Golf ($139). Why not Resident of Chicago?

What’s in It for Chicago?

And what’s in it for the city? Here’s where the idea of letting the state handle city sticker distribution gets really interesting. Last year, Chicago issued some 1,250,000 city vehicle stickers. About one-quarter were issued by mail or over the Internet. Another one-half were sold through 400 banks, currency exchanges, grocery stores and what are called “outside vendors” (for an additional $5.50 transaction fee). The last quarter––roughly 364,000 stickers––were sold at City Hall, ward offices, or one of six satellite offices and revenue department centers in the neighborhoods.

If you make an educated guess that each time a person bought a city sticker in person the transaction took about 5 minutes, city employees spent 27,000 manhours last year just standing at the service counter helping these customers. If you add in the people working in the back office processing applications, the city clerk’s office has 65 people assigned to administer the vehicle sticker program at an annual cost of $6.1 million, according to the 2012 city budget. That’s two out of every three city clerk employees, most of whom are earning $50,000 to $60,000 a year, at least a dozen of whom are acting like glorified ticket agents.

Even if the state charges a processing fee, the savings from transferring this task to the secretary of state in personnel costs alone would be in the millions.

Higher Revenues Too

And it’s not like the city clerk’s office is serving customers that the state can’t find. Have you ever heard of someone buying a Chicago city sticker who didn’t buy a license plate? The greater likelihood is that Chicago revenues will increase if the city piggybacks the sale of stickers onto license plate sales.

City Clerk Susana Mendoza acknowledged as much last October when she told the City Club of Chicago her office has begun cross-checking Illinois secretary of state car registration to crack down on city sticker scofflaws. “I think that’s just such low-hanging fruit, that’s common sense,” she said. “With technology, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be feeding into each other’s databases.”

What Else Does the Clerk’s Office Do?

Without a city sticker program to administer, the city clerk doesn’t have all that much else to do. Only 35 employees, including Mendoza, are not assigned to the city sticker program, according to the 2012 budget. Twenty-seven of them are responsible for keeping the calendar, record and archives of City Council proceedings, a task many aldermen argue could be done more efficiently by the council itself. Take that job away and the clerk has only two other tasks: handing out residential parking permits and issuing dog licenses.

Handing out parking permits can be a minefield because of the trench warfare that often went into establishing neighborhood no-parking zones. That’s why smart aldermen prefer to hand out the permits, and daily passes for guests, through their ward offices: to keep track of the neighborly feuds and soothe over problems.

But I don’t know any alderman who wants to take on dog licensing. The city clerk’s office hasn’t done a particularly good job in that arena either. There are an estimated half a million dogs in Chicago, and yet the clerk’s office last year issued only 30,000 dog licenses. I guess there are just some messes nobody wants to step into.

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