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Rodent Control gets its own bureau — again — in war on rats

Sun Times file photo

Chicago has tried just about everything to control a burgeoning rat population fueled by a construction boom and a mild winter — from dry ice and “coyote management” to adding 10 baiting crews and threatening hefty fines against dog owners who fail to pick up after pets in their own backyards.

Now, Mayor Rahm Emanuel is turning back to an old idea by resurrecting the stand-alone bureau charged with marshaling the city’s war on rats.

Tucked away in the mayor’s 2017 budget for the city’s Department of Streets and Sanitation is a 120-employee, $10.2 million Bureau of Rodent Control.

Rodent Control was folded into the Bureau of Sanitation years ago at a time when chronic absenteeism made it a struggle to find the manpower to pick up garbage and still trim trees, control rats and remove graffiti.

But efficiencies fueled by the switch from a ward-by-ward to a grid system for collecting garbage has made it possible to do more with less.

“We were constantly borrowing from different bureaus. We no longer borrow personnel back and forth. We have enough resources,” Streets and Sanitation Commissioner Charles Williams said Tuesday.

Josie Cruz will be in charge of rodent-control efforts. | Sun-Times file photo
Josie Cruz will be in charge of rodent-control efforts. | Sun-Times file photo

“We’re going back to what it was just prior to my arrival. It’s placing Josie Cruz over rodents. She has a long history of handling the rodent issue. She’s a licensed exterminator and very knowledgeable. She took on a number of other duties when we combined Sanitation with Rodent Control. We were getting behind in our calls. I felt we could have done better. The mayor demanded that we correct it.”

Southwest Side Ald. Mike Zalewski (23rd), a former deputy commissioner of Streets and Sanitation, argued that the grid system has, in some ways, been an impediment to the war on rats. That’s even though in the grid system, 60 fewer trucks are needed per day.

“The level of service and the cleanliness of the alleys has dropped since the grid has been in place. You don’t get the same crews in the alleys. We hear that complaint all the time. I notice what the alleys look like when these crews come in and they’re not the same crews. The carts are not put back in place. Sometimes, they’re laying in the middle of the alley. There are papers on the ground,” Zalewski said.

“Someone would say it’s the job of a supervisor to notice that stuff. But the ward superintendents duties have changed so dramatically over the years,” he said. “Before, we were able to hold them accountable because they were in charge of the garbage collection services in our wards. That’s not the case anymore.”

He added: “With Rodent Control going back as its own bureau, as long as the department makes a policy that they need to be staffed and the staff needs to be left alone, then it’s going to help with this increased rodent population.”

The stand-alone Bureau of Rodent Control will have 18 crews, up from eight last spring, when Emanuel added 10 crews in response to a 67 percent spike in complaints.

The bureau also will have a $3.4 million “Cart Management” section with 46 employees whose sole responsibility is to make certain that broken carts that provide a food source for rats are either repaired or replaced.

The city is putting more resources into battling the rodent problem. | File photo
The city is putting more resources into battling the rodent problem. | File photo

A citywide inventory conducted last spring found that there were 1.4 million black and blue carts, 11 percent of which were damaged. That triggered $300,000 in repairs, all performed in-house.

South Side Ald. Howard Brookins (21st) has complained that Chicago is wasting a ton of money on replacing and repairing garbage carts because “aggressive squirrels” are eating through them.

On Tuesday, Williams acknowledged that squirrels chewing through the cart lids have been an “ongoing problem” ever since Chicago made the switch “from metal drums to plastic carts.”

But, he said, “Trying to prevent that would make the cart quite expensive [and it’s not worth it]. Many of the lids are repaired right on the street after minimal damage.”

Earlier this year, Emanuel added reinforcements to the war on rats. That was followed by an intensive public outreach program to cut off the food source for rats by convincing residents to make sure their garbage is properly contained; take down backyard bird feeders; and clean up after their dogs and cats, even in their own backyards.

More recently, the city started experimenting with dry ice in four parks — Washington Square, Gil, Oz and Connors — as well as in planter boxes along Wabash, State, Chicago, Fairbanks and Superior. The dry ices is inserted into rodent burrows, where it melts, turning into carbon dioxide and suffocating the rats.

Dry ice costs $10 for 20 pounds, compared to $57 for the same amount of poison.

The city’s diverse approach appears to be working.

Through Sept. 1, the city had received 27,105 rat complaints, up 37.6 percent from the 19,693 complaints received during the same period a year ago. That’s down from 67 percent last spring.

“You’re never gonna get rid of rats completely, but we’re doing everything we can to manage the population. The goal is to answer every rodent call within five days. We’re very close to that,” Williams said Tuesday.

“Orkin says we’re the second-worst city for rats,” he said. “That’s just self-serving advertising.”