When it comes to sign violation citations in Chicago, it's all about the dollar signs

$94, 731.95.  That's how much a group of 18 businesses owes the city in fines and fees.  They've been cited for having signs in their windows or on exterior walls without a permit.  Because they've refused to pay, the fines have been increasing daily.

According to DNAInfo Chicago, there's been a huge jump in the number of citations issued for signage violations.   Small business owners think the city is getting carried away in issuing them.  Residents and community leaders are questioning the motive behind the sudden crackdown.

Alderman Brian Hopkins (2nd) told DNAInfo Chicago that the city has become especially dedicated to enforcing its business signage code, yet there are more serious problems that need to be addressed.  In the community, residents aren't complaining about posters in shops or restaurant windows.

But they are disgruntled about parking violations, commercial signs placed on poles, and people who don't pick up after their pooches.  Yet enforcement in these areas is less stringent.

The city has a system in place to inspect signage, with two inspectors appointed to make sure business owners comply.  During odd year cycles, the city covers communities with more residential areas and fewer businesses.  During even years, they monitor neighborhoods with a higher concentration of commercial activity.  The city explains that that's the reason why some years have seen such a marked increase in citations.  During even year cycles, there are more establishments to ticket.

But something still doesn't add up.  Between 2013 and mid-August of this year, the city issued over 1800 sign violation citations.  Throughout 2014 and 2015, inspectors issued just 432 tickets.  But during 2016 and 2017, they slapped business owners with a whopping 1,035-- and the year isn't over yet.

Entrepreneurs are subject to considerable fines if signs cover more than 25 percent of a window.  You can have the phone number and address, hours of operation, burglar alarm notices, and open and closed signs displayed on the glass without a permit, but for anything else, you'd better get the city's OK.

And I mean "everything else."  You need to get a permit just to caption your window with "ATM Inside," "Pizza by the Slice," or "We Accept Link Cards."  To make matters even more complicated-- and costly-- for business owners, some of them face multiple citations for having more than one window featuring signs that aren't backed by a permit.

No wonder the city isn't cracking down on other types of violations.  They can get quite a bit of revenue patrolling window and wall lettering and logos.  There's probably more money in that than trying to get people to clean up dog poop or park only in authorized zones.

It's tougher to crack down on pet owners.  Unless you catch some one right in the act of not picking up their canine's "fall-out," you can't really issue a citation.  Likewise, it can be impossible for the city to get to a parking violator in time to give a ticket.  When you contact the city to report that some one has taken your reserved space, the parking spot pilferer could be gone before a city worker arrives on the scene to slap a ticket on their windshield.

But when it comes to cracking down on window signs, the city sees dollar signs.  The permit itself costs $200 for each sign.  Add to that the Department of Buildings zoning review fee.  That can be anywhere from $50 to $1,000, depending on how large the sign is.  But we're not done yet.  Once you've been cleared to put up your sign, you'll have to pay an "inspection fee" of at least $40 every other year.

As costly as it is to get your signage authorized, the penalties for not going through the proper channels could cost you your establishment.  Fines are astronomical, ranging from $350 to $15,000 per sign per day until the offending wall and window mounts are taken down.  Violators are held responsible for interest, administrative, and collection fees when applicable.

Of course, if you want to challenge your citation at a hearing, there will be legal fees involved, too.

No wonder the city is so eager to crack down on signage.  I agree that people should get permits if that's what the law dictates, and there should be consequences for non-compliance.  But rules regarding signs are complicated.  You shouldn't have to pay $200+ just to post "ATM Inside" on a convenience store window or "Breakfast, Lunch & Dinner" in your restaurant.

It looks like the city is scrambling for cash.  I understand they want to enforce the law, but over-sized signage is the least of your concerns when you have parked cars blocking alleys and piles of dog excrement feeding the ever-increasing rat population and offending neighbors' nostrils.

The fines for sign violations are excessive.  If you have a poster in your window and the city asks you to take it down, it's easy to remove.  But some of the signs that have been ticketed are painted directly onto the glass or the building's exterior.  That can be difficult or impossible to remove in a timely fashion, so the fees add up day by day.  Some business owners are refusing to pay them altogether.

If the city wants to keep entrepreneurs from closing up shop and heading to the suburbs or out-of-state, officials need to simplify the signage code and lower the fines for violations.  I think the $200 permit fee is a bit steep, as well, considering there are zoning and inspection fees on top of that.  There should be a "maximum fine cap" too, so that punitive measures don't get out of hand.  The punishment should fit the "crime," and, in the grand scheme of things, unauthorized signage is a relatively minor "offense" and doesn't justify such excessive fines.

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