Emanuel backs ending free garbage pickup at multi-unit buildings

SHARE Emanuel backs ending free garbage pickup at multi-unit buildings
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A proposed change in how Chicago collects its garbage would have hundreds of multi-unit buildings paying for private pickup that the city used to provide free. | File Photo

Mayor Rahm Emanuel on Tuesday threw his formidable support behind a plan to save $3.3 million a year by ending the free ride for more than 1,800 multi-unit residential buildings still enjoying free city garbage pickup.

In 2000, the City Council formalized a policy that requires city crews to pick up garbage at single-family homes and all residential buildings with up to four units. All other buildings were required to hire private scavenger services.

But there was a catch: Larger buildings receiving free garbage collection before that date were “grandfathered” in until the buildings were sold.

If the City Council goes along with the mayor’s plan, the Department of Streets and Sanitation would remove refuse carts at those buildings and the 1,839 affected buildings would have 90 days to hire private scavenger services to pick up their garbage.

City crews assigned to make those pickups would be reassigned to other needs, including viaduct cleaning, clearing vacant lots and emptying overflowing waste baskets.

Two mayoral allies — Budget Committee Chairman Carrie Austin (34th) and Southwest Side Ald. Matt O’Shea (19th) — first suggested repealing the “grandfather clause” to cut costs and curb abuses pinpointed by Inspector General Joe Ferguson.

O’Shea called it a long overdue, “no-brainer” of an idea to chip away at a $20 billion pension crisis that has dropped the city’s bond rating to junk status.

Emanuel agreed. The mayor has steered clear of commenting on a host of cost-cutting and revenue-raising ideas suggested by Chicago aldermen in recent weeks. But this one was such “low-hanging fruit,” as O’Shea put it, the mayor plucked it right off the tree.

“As we work to continue righting the city’s fiscal ship, we must ensure that everyone plays by the same rules. I commend Ald. Austin, Ald.O’Shea and Inspector GeneralFergusonfor offering cost-effective solutions that will not only save money but help the city operate in a more efficient manner,” the mayor’s office quoted Emanuel as saying. Emanuel traveled to Aspen, Colorado, this week for an appearance at Fortune Magazine’s annual technology and ideas summit.

O’Shea said he’s pleased but not surprised by the mayor’s quick endorsement.

“This was an unfair practice. Some buildings were getting away with not paying for garbage pickup. Now everybody’s gonna be on a level playing field,” he said.

“The grandfather clause was looked at. It was supposed to be addressed. For some reason, it wasn’t. We’re righting a wrong.”

In June 2014, Ferguson set out to determine whether buildings benefiting from the garbage freebie were still entitled to it. What he found was alarming at a time when Chicago needs all of the revenue it can get.

Ferguson concluded Chicago taxpayers were providing the perk to 1,393 nonprofit properties at an annual cost of $3.3 million even though the City Council never authorized it. The inspector general further revealed the “grandfather list” of 1,839 multi-unit buildings still receiving free pickups at an annual cost of $3.27 million had not been updated during a six-year period ending in 2013.

As a result, Ferguson concluded the list was “inaccurate” and that Chicago taxpayers have spent millions to provide free garbage collection to multi-unit buildings that should have been picking up their own tab.

Four months ago Ferguson looked at the freebie again and concluded Streets & Sanitation still had made “no changes” nine months after promising to develop an “annual self-certification and audit process for grandfathered properties.”

If the full council follows the mayor’s lead, City Hall won’t have to bother doing an audit. The perk will be eliminated. The “inconsistent” treatment of building owners will stop. And so will the barrage of complaints that pour into Streets & Sanitation about alleys and garages blocked by an “excessive” number of carts at grandfathered buildings.

The $3.3 million savings could be the first in a series of changes to the costly system of garbage collection that Chicagoans have come to expect.

Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th), chairman of the City Council’s Black Caucus, has suggested a suburban-style garbage collection fee to minimize the need for a massive, post-election property tax increase.

Four years ago Ferguson estimated that a volume-based, “pay-as-you-throw” garbage collection fee could generate as much as $125 million a year. 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 backdoor 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 has argued that aldermen may have no choice but to endure “a lot of pushback” and impose a garbage collection fee.

“All over the country and in smaller municipalities, they do pay for garbage collection,”Sawyer told the Chicago Sun-Times in mid-May.

O’Shea said he would not be surprised if Emanuel serves up a garbage collection fee as part of a smorgasbord of taxes and fees tied to his September budget.

“We’re at that point where we have to be looking at everything. Things that, in the past, we haven’t been comfortable with we need to look at. We’re in a crisis. The numbers are daunting. It’s not gonna get any easier,” the alderman said.

In yet another garbage collection wrinkle, O’Shea has suggested financial incentives to boost recycling and reduce both the number of black carts and the volume of household garbage that must be collected.

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