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New tow fee funds police extras

Mayor: No problem with use of money, but may get closer look in future

DeKALB – Since early 2013, the DeKalb Police Department has used around $300,000 of the $350,000 collected in administrative tow fees to buy a wide range of items outside of its regular budget.

Among the many purchases, administrative tow fees helped outfit the new $12.7 million police department, buy an $80 spill-proof dog bowl and provided nearly $1,400 in Jimmy John’s meals to outside police agencies helping DeKalb during Corn Fest and Northern Illinois University move-in day.

Police Chief Gene Lowery said his department would not have been able to afford things necessary to its operation without the fees generated when police tow a vehicle involved in certain criminal activities.

“This program has had a dramatic impact on criminals because of the immediate financial sanction against them,” Lowery said. “I think this is a great way to fund the necessities of the department and it’s a widely adopted practice.”

A new funding source

In December 2012, the DeKalb City Council established an administrative tow fee, allowing police to tow a vehicle that is connected to illegal activity ranging from driving without a valid license to using the vehicle while committing a felony. Regardless of a person’s guilt or innocence, the accused must pay $500 to reclaim the vehicle, although the charge can be disputed through an administrative hearing process.

The fee has bolstered police finances by more than $350,000 since it was instituted, according to records obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.

When the ordinance was passed, the fee was expected to generate “some” revenue, and Lowery was given the discretion to use the funds it generated for police fleet and equipment needs.

As part of the budget process last year, the council assigned $50,000 of the administrative tow revenue to fleet replacement and $30,000 to equipment. The rest wasn’t earmarked and has been received and spent from an account not identified in the city’s budget, although expenses from the fund are reviewed monthly by the council. 

The city finance office also tracked money in and out of the account, meaning the department was spending only from what was available, Lowery said.

Some expenditures, such as a $23,000 bi-directional antenna and $15,000 for two
fingerprinting machines, were brought forward for council approval, but many others were authorized at Lowery’s discretion.

Administrative tow fees also bankrolled purchases that didn’t fit into the $12.7 million budget for the new police station, such as $6,259 that was spent on the station’s radio room, nearly $6,000 for furniture and $5,283 for blinds, as well as thousands of dollars for office and janitorial supplies, according to the city’s monthly expenditure reports.

“There wasn’t enough available funding in the budget to furnish the operational needs of this station,” Lowery said. “I believe these were essential to operate the new station. If we didn’t have this money, we would have been before the council with requests.”

Other major expenses included thousands of dollars for bullet proof vests, ammunition, vehicle repairs and office supplies, and nearly $20,000 in items for the department’s new canine unit.

The police department also used funds from towing vehicles to purchase vehicles of its own, including a Chevy Tahoe for $30,000 and an ambulance purchased from the fire department for $10,000 that was converted to a criminal transport vehicle. 

Rethinking spending approval

There isn’t a problem with the use of the administrative tow fees, Mayor John Rey said, but the fund will likely receive closer scrutiny as the city brings in financial consultants as part of City Manager Anne Marie Gaura’s financial responsibility initiative.

“I fully anticipate there will be other reporting procedures put in place, not only for the administrative tow fee, but for others, that will increase our accountability and transparency,” Rey said.

Gaura has already made changes to stem spending from the administrative tow account. Rather than use administrative tow money to buy, for example, bullet proof vests, Gaura mandated the department spend from its budgeted accounts. 

“The police department wasn’t doing anything wrong,” Gaura said. “They were following the policy in place. If anything, I came in and changed how things were played.”

Further, the police department will have to share the spoils from administrative tow fee once the new fiscal year starts in July. Gaura said the administrative tow money will become a revenue stream for the general fund and support operational needs for the entire city.

When she announced her financial responsibility initiative earlier this year, Gaura noted police used administrative tow fees to purchase $23,000 in fitness equipment for the new police station before obtaining council approval, which is required for expenses greater than $20,000.

Lowery explained the department received donations for the equipment that would have brought the cost under the $20,000 threshold, but forgot to apply them before the purchase.

“There was a great deal of discretion with this fund; finance had the ability to see everything and the council reviewed the finances,” Lowery said “At the same time, I have absolutely no problem with greater financial accountability. I embrace it.”

City Attorney Dean Frieders, who prosecutes the administrative tow cases for the city, maintained the efficacy of the program shouldn’t be clouded by past accounting practices.

“This is one of the rare instances where I can point to an ordinance and say it has a direct and discernible impact on the safety of the community,” Frieders said. “We are working to ensure the finances are subject to the same rigorous standards as the rest of the city’s expenditures.”

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