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Our View: Tracking tow fees will prevent problems

Giving government hundreds of thousands in unbudgeted, discretionary use funds is an invitation for trouble.  

That’s why its a good thing DeKalb city officials plan to change the way proceeds from its administrative tow fee are budgeted and spent. 

The city instituted a $500 fee to tow vehicles of people who use them to commit a crime in December 2012. Since then, it has generated more than $350,000. In this year’s budget, only $80,000 was budgeted for spending. 

The rest was available for spending on whatever police officials needed, and police have spent about $300,000 of the funds collected. Since the city began collecting the revenue, pages and pages of items have been purchased and charged to the tow fee account, which is not included in the city’s budget.  

Funds have been spent on a host of incidental, day-to-day expenses, along with equipment purchases ranging from bulletproof vests and fingerprinting machines to furnishings for the new police station.

Unlike with the “coffee fund” at NIU, records of the charges to the account are on the city’s books and can be inspected by the public and City Council.

The problem with the way the tow fund proceeds were accounted for wasn’t that they were abused by police officials. An analysis of tow fund expenditures by the Daily Chronicle showed that the purchases made were things that served police purposes. But the loose setup created the opportunity for abuse.

City Manager Anne Marie Gaura says she plans to make changes in how the money is used. Equipment purchases such as bulletproof vests will have to be made from budgeted accounts, rather than the towing fee account. Towing fees will no longer be used solely for the police department, but for the city as a whole, Gaura has said.

With existing revenue numbers on which to base future budget projections, city officials should have a better sense of how much money the towing fees will generate and how they can be used as part of the budget plan.

DeKalb is not the only local government to encounter this issue. In nearby Ogle County, the county board has voted to strictly limit what the county sheriff can use money from the tow fund for, after it was learned that money being deposited into the account was coming from sources other than towing fees – such as the state of Illinois and Exelon. Money from that county’s towing fee was also spent on a wide range of items with little oversight by the county board or other financial authorities there.

Ogle County Sheriff Michael Harn, who was defeated in the Republican primary last month, said this week that his office will no longer collect the fees at all.

In DeKalb, things have not reached that point, and with the planned changes, that seems unlikely. In about 16 months, towing fees have proven to be an effective revenue generator for the city, and officials say they also can serve as a deterrent to those who would decide to come to DeKalb to commit crime.

The fee collections appear to be far exceeding their revenue expectations, which suggests that they could be reduced.

City officials’ plan to more accurately budget and track the spending of the proceeds should at least help prevent any potential problems.

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