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Rahm’s floor leader negotiates lower garbage fee, senior discount

Chicago would impose a first-ever garbage-collection fee of $9.50 per household, but senior citizens would get a 50 percent break, under a compromise hammered out behind-the-scenes by Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s City Council floor leader.

Initially, Emanuel had been considering a fee in the $11-to-$12 range to raise more than $100 million to chip away at Chicago’s $30 billion pension crisis.

But sources said that fee has been whittled down to $9.50 — and $4.75 for seniors — during closed-door negotiations with recalcitrant aldermen, reducing the take to $80 million.

On Friday, Ald. Pat O’Connor (40th), the mayor’s floor leader, called a City Hall news conference to talk about the compromise along with five colleagues who have signed on to the plan.

But instead of being definitive about the amount, O’Connor hedged. He talked about a garbage fee of “no more than $11” — and possibly as low as $9.50 — with senior citizens paying only half that amount.

The game of cat-and-mouse would allow Emanuel to propose a higher fee, then reduce it to $9.50 to show aldermen he has compromised. The mayor has a four-year history of tinkering at the margins of his budget proposals without yielding on his basic principles.

“This has been a very fluid and a very collaborative process. . . . We basically want to put out there that this is about as high as it could possibly go and we’re working toward trying to reduce it,” O’Connor said.

Ald. Michelle Harris and Ald. Pat O’Connor were among several City Council members who appeared at a City Hall news conference Friday to discuss a revised proposal to begin charging Chicago residents a separate fee for garbage pickup. | Fran Spielman/Sun-
Ald. Michelle Harris and Ald. Pat O’Connor were among several City Council members who appeared at a City Hall news conference Friday to discuss a revised proposal to begin charging Chicago residents a separate fee for garbage pickup. | Fran Spielman/Sun-Times

O’Connor was joined by five colleagues: Aldermen Brian Hopkins (2nd); Roderick Sawyer (6th); Michelle Harris (8th); Danny Solis (25th) and Joe Moore (49th).

Harris is one of Emanuel’s staunchest African-American supporters and chairs the powerful Rules Committee. Sawyer’s support is significant, because he’s the one who proposed the garbage fee, before getting cold feet.

“It’s not a lack of agreement. We all stand here saying that we are prepared to support some form of a fee for garbage,” Harris said.

“All we’re saying to the administration is, we don’t want to charge folks any more than $11. If we can negotiate that down to a lower number, I’m even happier.”

The plan calls for the fee to be imposed on roughly 613,000 single-family homes, two-, three- and four-flats that still get city pick-ups. Senior citizens would pay half that amount, just as they do now on city stickers.

“Me and Alderman Sawyer, in our wards, everybody there is older than me,” said Harris, who pushed for the 50-percent discount. “I’m 50-plus. As I get older, so does my community. I’ve been there all my life. When I look at folks in my community, they look like my parents. I’m quite concerned about that fixed-income piece and those folks being able to . . . take on another fee.”

As expected, the new fee would be tacked on to water bills that arrive in mailboxes every other month. If homeowners refused to pay the garbage fee, city crews would still pick up the trash to avoid exacerbating Chicago’s already serious rodent problem.

But City Hall would threaten to cut off water service and refuse to sell the homeowner city stickers until the fee is paid.

The garbage fee has emerged as the biggest point of contention in Emanuel’s 2016 budget — even moreso than the 60 percent, $500 million property tax increase that will be the largest in modern Chicago history.

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

Ald. George Cardenas (12th), 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. Cardenas has promoted his penny-an-ounce tax on sugary soft drinks as an alternative.

And 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; and, if it is imposed, he also favors taxing the cart — not “charging everybody equally.”

Other aldermen have questioned the city’s ability to collect the new fee by tacking it on to water bills. The city has changed the water billing process five times in the last 25 years. Still, water bills routinely arrive in mailboxes after the due date.

“What we don’t want to do is to create another process that’s going to cost us money,” Harris said Friday.

“We don’t have any money. We’ve got to attach it to something we’re already collecting. A water bill would be logical to add it onto that. We cannot afford to pay for any extra stuff and set up another layer were we’ve got to hire people to do collecting for us.”

Last week, O’Connor was so concerned about the mounting opposition, he publicly questioned whether he could round up the 26 votes needed to pass it.

Now, O’Connor is hoping that, by lowering the fee and softening the blow on seniors, the opposition will melt away. But even Hopkins isn’t completely satisfied.

“I’m for it. But it’s an imperfect solution. There’s still going to be an imbalance. I’ll still have the problem in my ward with over 90 percent of the residents already paying for private waste-hauling with fees much higher” than $9.50 a month, Hopkins said Friday.

“We can’t do it this year, but the only fair solution is a citywide garbage-collection fee that covers all residential addresses. It would have to be high enough to pay for reinstatement of the condo rebate program, which has been eliminated. The $9.50 fee we’re talking about won’t be high enough.”

Zalewski had no immediate comment when asked whether the changes are enough to win his support.

The City Council’s resident-expert on garbage collection, Zalewski has worked behind-the-scenes to work out the kinks in what will be a monumental change for Chicago homeowners.