Garbage bins in a Chicago alley

One alderman wants to scrap the flat monthly garbage collection fee and start charging by volume, saying he gets complaints about some homeowner who fill up several containers a week. | Sun-Times file photo

Sun-Times file photo

Will citywide ‘cart inventory’ be prelude to volume-based garbage fee?

SHARE Will citywide ‘cart inventory’ be prelude to volume-based garbage fee?
SHARE Will citywide ‘cart inventory’ be prelude to volume-based garbage fee?

Chicago will take an inventory of “excessive” garbage carts next year — and one influential alderman hopes it will be a prelude to replacing the city’s $9.50-a-month garbage collection fee with a volume-based rate.

That approach also would double as an incentive to recycle, said Southwest Side Ald. Mike Zalewski (23rd), a former deputy commissioner of Streets and Sanitation.

Already, a “pilot inventory” in two unidentified wards found there were “many unused and under-used refuse carts that may be returned and re-deployed,” according to an overview of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s 2018 budget.

“In 2018, the Department of Streets and Sanitation will conduct a similar citywide cart assessment in an effort to recoup excessive carts,” the document states.

The cart inventory is not being conducted with the intention of switching to a “pay-as-you-throw” fee for garbage collection, said Molly Poppe, a spokesperson for the city’s Office of Budget and Management. Instead, the goal is to improve the efficiency of city refuse collection crews.

“If you’ve got 20 carts in an alley all half-full, it takes considerably more time than it does to empty ten full carts,” Poppe said Thursday.

“They’re trying to determine whether they can remove some of those carts, re-purpose them elsewhere and reduce time-in-alley.”

Zalewski said the cart inventory should be a first step toward junking a flat monthly fee for garbage collection that is fundamentally unfair because it lets homeowners who stockpile carts off too easy.

“From the time we started charging for garbage, there have been people as recently as last week who stopped me on the street and said, `I have one cart. It’s half-full. I recycle. And I can go four blocks and see a house that has six, seven, eight carts. It’s just not fair,” Zalewski said Thursday.

“Based on the amount of garbage that’s generated and the fact that we’re pretty much just giving out carts without any real restrictions, it’s something that has to be looked at.”

But, Zalewski added: “It’ll be very controversial. Based on what I saw in [Emanuel’s 2018] budget, I don’t see anything as controversial as that being proposed before the next election.”

The $9.50-a-month garbage fee tacked on to water bills was the most controversial element of Emanuel’s tax-laden 2016 budget.

During the heated debate, Zalewski made the case for a volume-based fee, using the same fairness argument he made Thursday.

Last year, demands for a volume-based fee flared anew.

Ald. Proco Joe Moreno (1st) suggested that approach as one way to bankroll a citywide property tax rebate.

“A pay-as-you-throw system that would encourage recycling. You would get charged for what you actually put in the garbage and not charged for what you actually recycle,” Moreno said then.

“We all feel the garbage fee was a big pill to swallow. But it’s not the right way to go. It doesn’t reduce waste in our landfills. And it doesn’t encourage recycling.”

Emanuel ended up using the $20 million tax windfall generated by the sale of the Chicago Skyway to bankroll a property tax rebate that was so widely-ignored, most of the money went unclaimed.

He also cracked the door open to a volume-based garbage collection fee that many aldermen view as more fair.

“When we dealt with the garbage fee, I said at that time this was going to be the first piece. But I was open to exploring … a fee for throwing,” or other options, Emanuel said then.

The city anticipates collecting $61.2 million in garbage fee revenues this year and a similar amount in 2018, up from $54.4 million last year. That “reflects improving collection rates and implementation of late payment penalties on delinquent garbage fee charges,” the budget overview states.

Inspector General Joe Ferguson has 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, therefore, reduces the number of carts used.

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