Price-gouging concerns stall 21% fee hike for private booters

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Price-gouging concerns on Wednesday derailed a plan to empower private booters roaming free in more than half of Chicago’s 50 wards to raise boot removal fees by $30 in exchange for stiffer regulations.

The trade-off was championed by Ald. Proco Joe Moreno (1st) and embraced by the Emanuel administration to bolster consumer protection in response to chronic complaints and confrontations over the years.

Those protections would require the city’s four private booters to:

• Remove the boot at no charge if the owner returns to the lot before the boot is fully applied.

• Register each location where the company is operating and pay a $100 fee for each site.

• Put their employees in uniforms and train them on boot installation and removal.

• Offer a 24-hour hotline accessible to consumers with questions and complaints.

“While a provision to increase the removal fee [from $140 to $170] is included, we feel this is a fair compromise with the industry to achieve some of the more stringent consumer protections,” said Barbara Gressel, deputy commissioner of the city’s Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection.

Aldermen did not agree. Their concerns about the 21 percent increase prompted the City Council’s Committee on License and Consumer Protection to shelve the ordinance for now.

“I don’t see where we need to increase this amount — and give a boon to these guys,” said Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd). “There’s no proof here that they need that increase. And based on the number of boots that we’ve heard about, it seems like the business is popping.”

Ald. John Arena (45th) questioned whether the cost of the training, uniforms and background checks would be passed along to employees who are “pretty much minimum wage” workers.

“If they’re taking that cost on, I’d be more sympathetic to the increase in the fee. But how much are putting onto the employee?” Arena said.

Michael Denigras, owner of Innovative Parking Solutions, portrayed the $30 increase as a drop in the bucket compared to his sky-high costs. He denied he’s in line for a windfall.

“I have to pay them way over the minimum wage. Nobody wants to work for me when they can work for McDonald’s at minimum wage and not take that abuse,” Denigras said.

“If people don’t park illegally, we don’t get paid. I have a guy who has sixteen McDonalds. He said, `I want you at all my McDonald’s. I don’t care if only five are busy.’ So, I pay a guy to stand there all day. Doesn’t get one boot.”

Denigras said his 30 employees also serve as the eyes and ears for Chicago Police officers at a fried chicken restaurant at Madison and Pulaski.

“There were drug dealers, prostitutes doing things on the lot. We stopped that. My guy had his windshield broken three times I had to pay for. They don’t want him on the lot because he’s disturbing their business. But the police come. They thank us. They hug us,” Denigras said.

Private booters currently have a maximum removal fee of $140.

They are empowered to operate in 26 of Chicago’s 50 wards.

Small businesses struggling to survive in congested Chicago neighborhoods view booting as a kinder, gentler and less costly way to handle the chronic problem of parking poachers. It doesn’t require towing, which could damage the car.

But over the years, the burgeoning use of private booting has been mired in controversy.

In 1999, the City Council moved to prohibit private booting amid reports of price-gouging and fisticuffs.

Eighteen months later, aldermen put the weapon back in the arsenal of neighborhood retailers with the consent of the local alderman, provided booting companies obtain city licenses and abide by strict regulations governing everything from fees, insurance and signs to staffing and credit card payments.

In 2004, private booters were further required to wait 15 minutes after a vehicle is parked before booting and to post signs informing motorists who return to their vehicles before the boot is fully applied of their right to demand removal at no charge.

At the time, Chicago Sun-Times columnist Neil Steinberg had shined the light on private booting abuses.

They included booters who swarm in for the kill, even if a motorist stops at an ATM to get money to shop at a local store. There have also been complaints of booters targeting motorists for “double-shopping” — first at the store with a parking lot, then somewhere else down the street.

Last year, a move to slap a “convenience fee” on motorists who use credit cards to pay private boot removal fees stalled amid similar price-gouging concerns by Waguespack and Arena.

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