Garbage freebie ends; Is collection fee next?

SHARE Garbage freebie ends; Is collection fee next?

More than 1,800 multi-unit Chicago residential buildings had better get a list of private scavenger services and put them on speed-dial. Within 90 days, they’ll be be paying the price for garbage collection that the city has been providing at no cost beyond normal property taxes.

In a move that could set the stage for suburban-style garbage collection fees citywide, the City Council agreed Wednesday to end the poorly-policed garbage freebie that’s costing Chicago taxpayers $3.3 million-a-year and treating some apartment buildings differently than others.

Newly-elected Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd) does not object to eliminating a grandfather clause that has been difficult to administer and even tougher to enforce.

But he’s concerned about the “underlying unfairness” of a refuse collection system that, even with the change, will still provide free pick-ups for 600,000 households.

“One homeowner gets free pick-up provided by the city and literally the next door neighbor has to pay an additional fee to contract with a private waste hauler. That’s a fundamental unfairness that I don’t have an answer to right now,” Hopkins said.

“But operationally, you can imagine what that’s gonna do to the alleys when people figure out that there’s free garbage carts out there right next to the ones they have to pay for. When the one they have to pay for gets full, where’s the garbage gonna go? Illegally, it’s gonna go into one of the free carts that’s right there available in the mix. I don’t think this is gonna work.”

In a follow-up interview, Hopkins argued that the only fair thing to do is to impose a monthly garbage collection fee on all homeowners and, perhaps, use the windfall of new revenue to provide additional service.

“That should be on the table . . . It’s a matter of fairness. Just to even the playing field for everybody. To pay for better service, too. This is something we could use to improve the current system, which nobody seems to be satisfied with. The rodent population is also exploding in the city and it’s directly connected to overflowing dumpsters, overflowing recycling containers,” Hopkins said.

“Right now, everybody does pay. It’s just a question of how many times you pay . . . When you’ve got this notion that it’s free, it’s subject to being abused. They don’t make an effort to separate their recyclables from their non-recyclables. So to incentivize good behavior by charging more or charging a flat fee that everybody has to pay into is something we should consider.”

The Chicago Association of Realtors blasted the Council’s decision to end the free ride for multi-unit buildings.

“Increasing fees, regulations and taxes on small businesses like landlords, regardless of size, have an impact on overall affordability in Chicago and an immediate impact on consumers,” said Chicago Association of Realtors President Hugh Rider in a statement. “Together, we must find ways to keep Chicago affordable for everyone.”

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

Larger buildings receiving free garbage collection before that date were “grandfathered” in until the buildings were sold. But nobody bothered to check the property records. Nobody scoured the list to see if those buildings still claiming the freebie were actually eligible to receive it.

Earlier this week, Streets and Sanitation Commissioner Charles Williams put a precise number on the widespread cheating that Inspector General Joe Ferguson exposed after conducting a pair of audits.

“There were approximately 2,500 [grandfathered] properties on this list [in 2000]. Through ownership changes, there are approximately 1,800 properties remaining. Of those 1,800, we have captured through the Department of Law and found that, automatically, 794 of those are no longer eligible to be collected by the city, which just illustrates the problems we’re facing within our department,” Williams said.

“By changing this ordinance, it will allow us to ensure again that we have equitable refuse collection across the board.”

Ald. Matt O’Shea (19th), chief sponsor of the ordinance, added, “These 794 buildings right now are cheating the system, cheating the taxpayers. … There are more out there … There’s even more cost-savings … Everybody in this room has got a ward with lots that are overgrown. Most of us have viaducts that need cleaning up. This will put resources short-term in your wards addressing those problems. And my hope is freeing up the manpower … that will no longer be picking up peoples’ garbage who should not be getting free pickup in these buildings, we can get more crews trimming trees, removing dead trees, addressing other concerns.”

Now that the full City Council has eliminated the garbage freebie, the Department of Streets and Sanitation will begin the painstaking process of removing refuse carts at those buildings and the 1,839 affected buildings will have 90 days to hire private scavenger services to pick up their garbage. Tipping fees paid by Chicago taxpayers will be reduced.

Williams said he hopes to collect the carts and complete the transition by November to avoid piling on during snow season.

But it won’t happen until City Hall conducts an “aggressive outreach to get the message out” to impacted buildings and provides those residents with a list of licensed refuse collectors “so they know where to go.”

“It may take longer [than November] … We’re not gonna pull away service if there’s nothing there to take its place,” Williams said.

Hopkins said he’s also concerned that the switch to private scavenger service could set the stage for an influx of noise complaints with private waste haulers “banging” around “in the middle of the night.”

Private waste hauling is currently prohibited between 9 p.m. and 7 a.m.

“We encourage them to say within the rules. If they do not, we’ll cite them,” Williams said.

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