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Aldermen question Emanuel’s plan to implement garbage collection fee

African-American aldermen have urged Mayor Rahm Emanuel to trash plans to impose a garbage collection fee on grounds it will leave some neighborhoods filthy, breed widespread avoidance and cost laborers their jobs.

The chairman of the City Council’s Hispanic Caucus is saying 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.

Now, an aldermen who once served as a deputy commissioner of Chicago’s Department of Streets and Sanitation is questioning the mayor’s plan to implement the suburban-style fee.

Southwest Side Ald. Mike Zalewski (23rd) said Emanuel’s decision to bypass an annual fee on every 96-gallon black cart, in favor of a monthly assessment of $11-to-$12-per household is fundamentally unfair.

Zalewski is intimately familiar with garbage collection, having run the Bureau of Sanitation, which overseas the pivotal service. He argued that the mayor’s plan lets homeowners who stockpile carts off too easy.

“We’ve got to look at the fairness of this fee. I represent a ward that’s predominantly single family homes. The majority of those homes have the standard amount of two black carts and one blue recycling cart. Then, there are homes that have one or two blue recycling carts and six, seven or eight black carts. I don’t think there was ever a restriction put on by either [the Daley or Emanuel] administration on how many carts you can get,” Zalewski said.

“There are houses that have two carts and houses that have eight. Is the fee going to be on the residence, the address or on how many containers you have? How is the administration planning on making this fair? If you’re empty-nesters, a family with a couple of children or a family that has many children that needs more containers, requiring city crews to spend more time and resources, what’s going to be the cut-off point of what you’re entitled to?”

Four years ago, Inspector General Joe Ferguson estimated that a volume-based, annual fee of $100 for every 96-gallon cart used could generate as much as $125 million a year—even if the fee triggers a 17 percent reduction in the volume of household refuse and a companion cut in the number of garbage carts used.

The Chicago Sun-Times reported this week that, in order to avoid penalizing families with two or three garbage carts, the mayor has chosen to go with a flat monthly fee. That’s a plan that, Zalewski warned, is fraught with problems.

“If it’s just residence, will there be a limit on how many containers you have and if you take away containers, where is that garbage going to go? Are the neighbors with excess garbage going to take that garbage and put it someplace else–like a house that’s foreclosed on where no one is taking care of the place?” he said.

Ald. John Arena (45th) said the garbage fee should be “implemented in a way that encourages recycling” to reduce waste disposal costs.

“We could do a fee-per-black cart and reduce our costs by diverting refuse from the black carts to the blue carts because you can sell it. There’s an opportunity to be more nuanced with the approach and give the user the choice,” Arena said.

“The monthly fee charges everybody equally. There’s ways to use taxation to encourage behavior that’s better for us. That’s an opportunity that would be missed if we just do a flat fee.”

Another alderman, who asked to remain anonymous, questioned how the city planned to collect the fee.

“Water bills are so screwed up. You get a bill on Aug. 8 that says your bill was due on the Aug. 2. They’ve changed the billing process five times in the last 25 years. The bill has water and sewer fees in there. Can they add something for garbage without screwing that up, too?” the alderman said.

After a ribbon-cutting ceremony Friday at the 43-acre Northerly Island nature preserve on a site that once housed Meigs Field, Emanuel said aldermen questioning how he plans to implement the garbage collection fee are jumping the gun.

“Caution. Slow. I know people want to drive over the speed bump, but I haven’t presented the budget yet. I’ll present my budget and then, aldermen will be able to contribute ideas. But we’re gonna meet our obligations,” the mayor said.

“Everybody knows that the challenges we have fiscally today didn’t start four years ago. They started 40 years ago, built up. People didn’t want to confront it. By way of reference, you know and I know that we could have done a better job of the way we collected garbage. We put it on a grid model. We saved around $18 million. Plowed it all into recycling. We will go through the system and, when I’m done, people will see the whole package—not individual things and won’t respond to them when a microphone is put in their face.”

Emanuel said there will be plenty of time for aldermen to fine-tune the garbage fee and other proposals after he presents his 2016 budget to the City Council on Sept. 22.

“They’ll engage. I don’t expect it to be exactly what I proposed. But I do expect this: We will finish the job of balancing our budget and eliminating the structural deficit,” the mayor said.

“We will finish the job of ridding the system of all the gimmicks and all the things that hid the real cost of operating a budget. And we’ll do it without a property tax [for operations] And we will [raise property taxes to] meet our obligation to our policemen and firemen that serve us everyday and do it in a fair way so that those that can afford it will meet their responsibility and those that can least afford it will be held-harmless. But we’re not done.”

The mayor has a history of appeasing aldermen by doing minor tinkering that keeps his major budget initiatives in tact.

Two years ago, he shaved a quarter off his 75-cents-a-pack cigarette tax hike to appease black aldermen concerned about street-corner sales of loose cigarettes, but buried a $25 million plan to hire hundreds of additional police officers instead of relying so heavily on overtime.

To make up for $2 million in lost cigarette tax revenues, the fine for parking at a fire hydrant was raised – to $150, instead of $100. Another $1 million came from “indirect services” the city’s corporate fund provides to O’Hare and Midway airports that had not been “fully captured.”