In its search for extra funds during tight budget times, Evanston, Ill., looked to an unusual source for extra revenue: its debtors. The city passed two ordinances last year denying certain city services to individuals who owed the city money. As a result, the city collected more money from its debtors during the first four months (March through June) of the 2002-2003 fiscal year than it did during the entire 2001-2002 fiscal year.

One ordinance prohibits property owners with city liens on their buildings from purchasing city transfer stamps that would allow them to sell their properties. By prohibiting the purchase of transfer stamps, city officials plan to acquire payments due as well as to end rapid slumlord changeover.

The city has a chronic problem with landlords who violate property standards but continue to collect rent from their tenants. They sell their properties rather than make improvements and pay their fines.

“While their bills pile up, these property owners collect rent while their tenants live in unacceptable and even dangerous conditions,” explains Wayne Moran, director of administrative adjudication. “[Furthermore], landlords often sell their properties to another who has no intention of improving the property, creating a continuous downward spiral.”

Landlords have 35 days to appeal their default judgments. “If a case is not appealed, the city will place a lien against the property if the owner has not corrected the cited problems,” Moran says.

The ordinance has begun to pay off. In July, Evanston collected the largest fine in the city's history. A property owner/landlord who wanted to sell, but who owed the city for property standards citations, paid the city $25,000.

The second ordinance states that individuals who owe Evanston money for any reason are denied all city services, besides water and emergency services, until their debts are paid. They also cannot purchase city vehicle stickers — a wheel tax allowing residents to park legally — and beach tokens.

The city is getting tough with its debtors by denying those services. “Debts from a governmental body have somehow over the years acquired a different standard for payment than a legal debt due a private business,” Moran says. “Evanston is now holding its community members responsible for their actions. The legal judgment is a debt due and owed to Evanston.”

During the first four months of the city's current fiscal year, Evanston collected $436,073 in debts compared to $155,112 collected during the first four months of the 2001-2002 fiscal year. That sum includes $10,838 collected for property standards citations and $1,050 for moving violations compared to $100 and $375, respectively. Overall, the city already has collected $4,291 more than it collected during the entire previous fiscal year.

By implementing the two ordinances, city officials are holding residents responsible for their debts. “This type of fiscal accountability is much more than a matter of number crunching and revenue hunting,” Moran explains. “It requires communicating through the media that the governing body isn't asking for something unique or oppressive. On the contrary, it is merely asking for what is right and fair.”

To communicate those ideas, the city alerted the local media about the ordinances prior to their implementation. Additionally, Evanston is planning to explain the ordinances in an upcoming city newsletter that circulates to 32,000 local homes and businesses.

Besides targeting its debtors with media messages, the city is targeting residents who do not owe the city money. “The lack of fiscal responsibility for debts also must be communicated to those who pay their debts so they will support legislation that ensures debtors are forced to pay up,” Moran says.

The author is the community information coordinator for Evanston, Ill.