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Emanuel’s floor leader acknowledges mounting opposition to garbage fee

Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s City Council floor leader acknowledged Thursday that opposition is mounting to a suburban-style garbage-collection fee — so much so that the mayor just might have to trash it.

Ald. Patrick O’Connor (40th) said he’s fairly confident he’ll be able to line up the 26 votes needed to pass a $500 million property tax increase for police and fire pensions and school construction.

But the alderman said he is not at all certain about Emanuel’s plan to impose a monthly garbage-collection fee of between $11 and $12 per household. That’s even though 40 percent of all Chicago households already pay for private scavengers to pick up their garbage.

“Some of the people who originally proposed the tax seem to be backing off of it. I don’t think we’ve had an opportunity really to hear the plan. What we’ve seen is really kind of anecdotal and what’s gotten out into the public,” O’Connor said.

“If it’s going to make the budget, then we’ll have a hearing and we’ll figure out if there’s some support for it. It’s part of the discussion, but I don’t know that it necessarily has to be there in the end.”

Hours later, Emanuel was asked whether he was prepared to retreat from the garbage fee.

“I haven’t even introduced the budget yet . . . You can’t fast-forward to the conclusion. You can’t. I apologize,” the mayor said.

The garbage fee originated with Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th), chairman of the City Council’s Black Caucus, but it has since emerged as the biggest point of contention — even more than the 60 percent property tax hike.

Black aldermen have urged Emanuel to drop it on grounds it will leave some neighborhoods filthy, breed widespread avoidance and possibly cost laborers their jobs.

The chairman of the City Council’s Hispanic Caucus has said it would be “very difficult to do both” a garbage fee and a $500 million property tax increase that amounts to a “double whammy” on homeowners.

Southwest Side Ald. Mike Zalewski (23rd), a former deputy commissioner at the city’s Department of Streets and Sanitation, has argued that the mayor’s plan lets homeowners who stockpile carts off too easy.

Ald. John Arena (45th) has also argued that the garbage fee should be “implemented in a way that encourages recycling,” reduces the volume of routine garbage and reduces waste-disposal costs. That can only be done by taxing the cart, not by “charging everybody equally,” Arena said.

If the garbage tax is dropped, Emanuel will have to find a way to replace the expected $100 million in annual revenue.

Ald. George Cardenas (12th) has billed his tax on sugary soft drinks as a dollar-for-dollar replacement. But O’Connor said Cardenas’ revenue projections are suspect. O’Connor also agreed with an attorney representing the American Beverage Association that the sugar tax may need authorization from the Illinois General Assembly.

What, then, is the substitute for the garbage fee?

“I don’t know. The numbers being discussed were never meant to take up the complete slack of what it costs us for garbage. It was basically about a 20 or 25 percent thing. So it was more or less a subsidy,” O’Connor said.

“If we don’t have that, we’ll obviously need to find another way, and there’s a lot of people trying to figure out what those other ways might be. We’re collecting ideas every day. Start from the premise this was a council initiative. The mayor basically said if this is something the council can do, it would be worth pursuing. There’s a number of other things the council has suggested that they’re also looking at.”

Former Mayor Richard M. Daley had a political phobia to raising property taxes — the third rail of Chicago politics — that prompted him to freeze them for 17 of his 22 years in office.

In fact, Daley once diverted city payments from Municipal Employees and Laborers pension funds, then flush with cash, to provide a pre-election property tax cut.

The result is that Chicago property taxes are unrealistically low compared with rates for similarly sized homes in most suburbs.

In spite of that history, O’Connor said Thursday he’s fairly certain he’ll have the votes for the $500 million property tax increase.

“I wouldn’t want to jinx ourselves and say, ‘Oh yeah. We’ve got them.’ But it does seem that a lot of people in the council are aware that there’s some significant potential tax increases in the offing. And nobody’s jumped out the window yet. So that’s good,” O’Connor said.

Last week, Emanuel was asked to rate his own chances of rounding up the 26 votes needed to approve a 60 percent property tax increase and a garbage-collection fee widely viewed as a backdoor property tax hike.

“I said we’re going to do it in a fair and progressive way. . . . If you’re asking me, ‘Do I believe we’ll get it done?’ The short answer is, yes, because I actually believe the aldermen are up to the task of charting a new course for Chicago’s future,” the mayor said then.