Mayoral allies want to end free trash pickups for multiunit buildings, save $3.3M

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The free ride may soon be over for more than 1,800 multiunit Chicago residential buildings still enjoying free city garbage pickup. They might have to hire private scavenger services to pick up their trash.

Two of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s closest City Council allies — Budget Committee Chairman Carrie Austin (34th) and Southwest Side Ald. Matt O’Shea (19th) — want to repeal the so-called “grandfather clause” that costs the cash-strapped city $3.3 million a year and that Inspector General Joe Ferguson claims has been abused for years.

Austin and O’Shea plan to introduce the repeal at the City Council meeting Wednesday. If aldermen approve it, the Department of Streets and Sanitation would remove refuse carts at those locations and the 1,839 affected buildings would have 90 days to make other arrangements for their self-funded pickups. The city manpower assigned to make those pickups could be reassigned to other pressing needs, including viaduct cleaning, clearing vacant lots and emptying overflowing waste baskets.

The $3.3 million saved would barely make a dent in Chicago’s $30 billion pension crisis. But every little bit helps, O’Shea said.

“Joe Ferguson has talked about it. You’ve written about it. It’s low-hanging fruit. It should have been done a long time ago,” O’Shea told the Chicago Sun-Times Tuesday.

“Ferguson has some other ideas he’s working on. There are lot of things. Whether it’s small-time like this or much larger changes, we need to look at things. This one is a no-brainer.”

In 2000, the City Council formalized a policy that requires city crews to pick up garbage at single-family homes and all multiunit buildings that include four or fewer units. All other buildings were required to hire private scavenger services at their own expense.

But there was a catch: Larger buildings receiving free garbage collection before that date were “grandfathered” in until the buildings were sold.

In June 2014 Ferguson set out to determine whether buildings still benefiting from the freebie were still entitled to it. What he found was alarming at a time when Chicago needs all of the new and old revenue it can get.

Ferguson concluded Chicago taxpayers were providing the perk to 1,393 nonprofit properties at an annual cost of $3.3 million even though the City Council never authorized it. The inspector general further revealed the “grandfather list” of 1,839 multiunit buildings still receiving free pickups at an annual cost of $3.27 million had not been updated for a six-year period ending in 2013.

As a result, Ferguson concluded the list was “inaccurate” and that Chicago taxpayers have spent millions to provide free garbage collection to multiunit buildings that should have been picking up their own tab.

Three months ago Ferguson looked at the freebie again and concluded Streets and Sanitation still had made “no changes” nine months after promising to develop an “annual self-certification and audit process for grandfathered properties.”

Emanuel acknowledged that he hadn’t gotten around to making the change that Ferguson proposed last summer because he was too busy making even bigger changes to the way Chicago collects its garbage.

If Austin and O’Shea have their way, City Hall won’t have to bother doing an audit. The entire perk will be eliminated. The “inconsistent” treatment of building owners will stop. And so will the barrage of complaints that pour into Streets and Sanitation about alley and garages blocked by an “excessive” number of carts at grandfathered buildings.

The $3.3 million savings also could be the first in a series of changes to the costly system of garbage collection that Chicagoans have come to expect.

Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th), newly elected chairman of the City Council’s Black Caucus, has suggested a suburban-style garbage collection fee to chip away at the pension crisis and minimize the need for a post-election property tax increase.

O’Shea is not ready to go that far. But he is proposing something else: financial incentives to boost recycling and reduce the number of black carts and the amount of household garbage that must be collected.

“If you recycle more, there might be some type of rebate,” he said. “There’s a household in my neighborhood with two kids that has five black carts. It drives me nuts.”

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