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How to Get the City to Pay When a Pothole Damages Your Car

What to do after a chance encounter with one of Chicago’s 600,000 lovely potholes.

A pothole in the 700 block of N. Greet Street on January 26, 2014. Look out!   Photo: Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune

Give Rahm credit: He has learned from New Jersey governor Chris Christie that the best way to piss off voters is to mess with their driving. Here it’s not closing down bridges that rankles, but shrugging off the 600,000-plus potholes that sprout on city streets each year like ugly warts—ones that are huge, go in instead of out, and can wreck your car.

Thanks to this winter’s horrific math (snow + salt + deep freeze = pothole nirvana), Mayor Emanuel’s administration put repair crews on weekend and overnight duty on January 10, a week earlier than in 2013. By month’s end, they’d patched some 90,000 holes. Only 510,000 more to go!

Which may leave you wondering about the city’s program to help pay the cost of fixing your car if you hit a whopper. The process is so complicated that the city clerk’s website publishes a flow chart to show how your claim travels through the system. (Hint: It involves four separate city entities.)

Still up for it? Here’s what to do:

Keep meticulous records. You’ll need to note the exact location, date, and time of your encounter; your claim will be stronger if you include the name and contact info of any witnesses, as well as a police report number. Photos of the offending pothole and your mangled axle won’t hurt.

Fix the car pronto. You may submit two written estimates for the cost of repairs, but a detailed receipt from an auto-body shop works just as well.

Get ready to wait . . . and wait. After you mail all that stuff to the city clerk’s office (along with a form that you download from its website), the clerk reviews your claim and sends it to the City Council’s Committee on Finance. That’s where the problems start. In 2011, Chicago’s last harsh winter, 817 pothole damage claims were submitted, according to the city clerk’s office, and based on submitted claims so far, “we could get to 1,000 this year,” says city clerk spokesman Pat Corcoran. Because the committee must process and approve each one, claims stack up like flights at O’Hare.

If your claim gets the nod—which, by the way, is contingent on a Chicago Department of Transportation investigation proving the pothole existed at the time of the accident—it moves to a vote by City Council. (Seriously.) A “no” vote? You’re toast. A “yes” vote? Your claim travels on to the city’s finance department, which cuts the checks. Corcoran says that in some cases, it can take up to 18 months for a claimant to be reimbursed.

Celebrate! But not too much. Last year, the Committee on Finance paid $181,217 on 754 claims, or about $240 a claim, according to spokesman Donal Quinlan. That payment, as a settlement, is never the full amount of the claim. Want to get it all back? You’ll have to take the city to court for that.

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