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Streets and San chief braces for 10 more inches of snow this winter

Streets and Sanitation Commissioner Charles Williams said Tuesday he’s bracing for ten additional inches of snow this winter, but he’s ready for it with 285,000 tons of salt and a $16.9 million budget that includes a “surplus” from last year.

Chicago made it through last winter with 19.6 inches of snow, according to a chart of yearly totals compiled by the National Weather Service. That allowed a city that has piled up tens of millions in snow removal bills during the worst of winters to spend a modest $10 million last year.

This year, Williams said he’s expecting roughly ten inches more—just under 30 inches—most of it “after January.” He’s roaring into winter with 285,000 tons of salt and a budget of $16.9 million that includes a “surplus” from last year.

“We are ready,” Williams said Tuesday while testifying at City Council budget hearings. Pressed by Ald. Ray Suarez (31st) on what he’s doing to control squirrels and rats with “super teeth,” Williams disclosed that Streets and San will conduct a “citywide audit” of black garbage carts next year — with electronic tags placed in each. The goal is to speed replacement, save money by “re-purposing” carts no longer in use and place carts where demand is highest.

Williams said the city tried using a repair contract to fix broken carts, but, “It didn’t work.” He did not explain the glitch.

If the audit succeeds in speeding the time it takes to replace stolen or damaged carts, it can’t come fast enough for Ald. Ariel Reboyras (30th).

“I don’t know where the glitch is. But in this system, it takes too long. Unless we make that phone call, it doesn’t happen,” Reboyras said. “In many cases where we needed a cart, I’ve asked someone to take a cart from an empty building, an abandoned building, and move it over to the other side. It works for us. I don’t really care as long as the garbage is not on the ground and in the cart.”

Ald. Deborah Graham (29th) added, “I wish we could find a way to know where those carts are at when they’re missing … My garbage cans are missing all the time.”

Streets and San is the city’s third-largest department, with an annual budget of $133.7 million. But, it’s the one department that can make or break an alderman’s political career. If the garbage doesn’t get picked up fast enough or the snow doesn’t get plowed well enough or quickly enough, the aldermen gets a blizzard of blame. That’s why aldermen weren’t happy when their ward superintendents were yanked out of their wards for much of the day to cover the switch to a grid system for collecting garbage or to cover Safe Passage routes for students impacted by the record number of school closings.

Under pressure from aldermen, Mayor Rahm Emanuel created a whole new layer of middle-management — at an annual cost of $592,000 — to ride herd over a grid system he’s counting on to save a revised, $18 million-a-year. And Williams disclosed Tuesday that Streets and San’s contribution to Safe Passage has been dramatically reduced to include just six of the 50 ward superintendents working two afternoons-a-week.

Under questioning by Ald. Mike Zalewski (23rd) about the chronic graffiti problem plaguing the east end of his new ward, Williams said he’s adding two paint crews to assist in graffiti removal. A former deputy commissioner at Streets and San, Zalewski noted that graffiti blasters favored by former Mayor Richard M. Daley are “very expensive to maintain” and require an operating engineer. Williams agreed and disclosed that the city is now using a “chemical truck that works a little bit better” than the blaster.

“It doesn’t leave behind that white residue that you sometimes see. So, we are leaning in the direction of purchasing more of those, as opposed to the blasters. And we don’t need a hoisting engineer to operate it. We can operate that with just regular crews,” the commissioner said. He added, “Currently, we have two, but we’re hoping to get more.”

Ald. Mary O’Connor (41st), whose Northwest Side ward includes tons of trees, said she has 1,200 outstanding tree trimming requests and tree removal 1,300 requests for tree removal. She was not impressed when told the mayor has increased the Bureau of Forestry budget by $1.9 million in 2014. “What impact do you think that will have? What type of progress can we possibly see? To me, that seems fairly minimal in what I’ve been experiencing the last few years,” she said.