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New Black Caucus chairman full of ideas, including garbage collection fee

Chicago homeowners have managed to avoid suburban-style garbage collection fees, but those “spoiled” days may be coming to an end, the newly elected chairman of the City Council’s Black Caucus said.

“I hate to say it. I know there’ll be a lot of pushback. But a nominal fee may be something we have to look at” to solve the $30 billion pension crisis, said Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th).

“All over the country and in smaller municipalities, they do pay for garbage collection. In Chicago, free garbage collection is something we’ve become accustomed to. But just like not having a sales tax on services, those days may be over. We have to look at it to balance the books.”

Four years ago, Inspector General Joe Ferguson estimated that a volume-based, “pay-as-you-throw” garbage collection fee could generate as much as $125 million a year for the cash-strapped city. Chicago could raise an additional $18 million a year by imposing a blue cart recycling fee, Ferguson said then.

Emanuel ignored both ideas, apparently concerned it would be viewed as a back-door property tax increase.

But now that the Illinois Supreme Court has overturned state pension reforms and placed Emanuel’s plan to reform two of four city employee pension funds in similar jeopardy, Sawyer said aldermen may have no choice but to end the free ride for garbage collection.

In fact, Sawyer acknowledged that a post-election property tax increase will almost certainly be needed to rebuild a Chicago bond rating reduced to junk status.

“The short-term solution is going to hurt. I know everybody is doing everything they can to avoid a property tax increase, but it has to a least be discussed,” he said.

Ald. Howard Brookins is the former head of the Chicago City Council’s Black Caucus. | Sun-Times

Sawyer, a member of the City Council’s Progressive Caucus, was chosen last week to replace Ald. Howard Brookins (21st) as chairman of the City Council’s 17-member Black Caucus.

Brookins was among a handful of mayoral allies rewarded with a committee chairmanship. That paved the way for a changing of the guard at the Black Caucus — just in time to bring new energy and ideas to some of Chicago’s most intransigent problems.

In an interview last week, Sawyer was particularly critical of Police Supt. Garry McCarthy for belatedly launching a “listening tour” to address the lingering distrust between citizens and police in black neighborhoods.

“This is something that should have been done first. It seems kind of cheesy to do it now after being there four years,” he said.

Sawyer said he was equally offended by McCarthy’s claim, on the day that riots broke out on the streets of Baltimore, that now-acquitted Chicago Police Detective Dante Servin should never have been indicted because he “hit the individual who he was aiming at” and “also happened to hit” 22-year-old Rekia Boyd.

Emanuel has expressed similar qualms about McCarthy’s remarks about the case.

“When he [McCarthy] says thing like that, it sends a bad message to the citizens of Chicago,” Sawyer said. “The superintendent appears to be callous, insensitive and out of touch.”

“Shooting into a crowd is not warranted at all,” Sawyer said. “From my vantage point, it was an irresponsible act. Maybe not to the point of murder. But it was very bad.”

The alderman also opposes McCarthy’s constant push for mandatory minimum sentencing for gun crimes.

On the persistent crime and gang-related shootings that still plague many South and West Side neighborhoods, Sawyer said: “I get calls for foot patrols, but staffing levels won’t allow it. People think we’re understaffed. We need to figure out if the answer is additional police officers or redeployment.”

Police Department spokesman Martin Maloney said in an emailed statement: “We would happily welcome any constructive assistance the alderman has to offer, and hope as part of his new role he will be more engaged in CPD’s efforts to improve the relationship between officers and residents.

“Over the past four years we have made community policing and fostering stronger relationships between officers and the residents the foundation of our policing strategy. We are committed to continuing to build on these efforts, in close partnership with elected officials, ministers, community leaders and residents throughout Chicago.

“That’s why we have moved hundreds of officers out from administrative positions and on to the street, expanded foot patrols and bike patrols in neighborhoods throughout the city, created CAPS offices in each of the 22 police districts, and implemented new community organizing training programs for officers. The community outreach tour, which is being led by members of all ranks throughout the department, is an extension of those efforts and comes at a time when the relationship between police officers and residents has become a discussion of national importance.”

Sawyer said the newly energized Black Caucus also plans to pressure Emanuel to deliver on his campaign promise to shift his development focus from Chicago’s glistening downtown to South Side and West Side neighborhoods suffering from decades of disinvestment and high unemployment.

That includes “repurposing” 50 shuttered Chicago Public Schools and revitalizing moribund neighborhood commercial corridors.

“Our neighborhood corridors are stagnant — particularly those not covered by TIFs,” he said, referring to tax increment financing districts. “We’re not investing in those areas, and they’re not generating any tax revenue. We need to improve and revitalize those commercial corridors along Madison, State, 75th, Halsted and Ashland, just to name a few.”

“We need to find creative sources to fund that. The mayor is quite adept at forging public-private partnerships,” Sawyer said. “I want to work with him on that to get these neighborhoods in shape where they can start generating tax dollars.”

After spending $22 million to survive Chicago’s first mayoral runoff, Emanuel has been trying to “hit the reset” button to rebuild strained and soured relationships that may have cost him politically.

Sawyer has seen it firsthand. He’s held several closed-door meetings with the mayor since the election and communicated with Emanuel in between.

He believes the Rahm Emanuel who put on a V-neck sweater in a mea-culpa campaign commercial and promised to listen more and talk less will be a changed man in a second term.

“I don’t know if he got a scare. But he came to the realization that he had to make some changes in his management style,” Sawyer said.

“My only problem with him during the first term was there was no conversation. No back-and-forth. Now, there is. I appreciate that. I hope it will last. If it doesn’t, I’ll continue to push for what I have to push for.”