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Brown: Aldermen reluctantly embrace garbage tax — er, fee

Ald. Roderick Sawyer. | Brian Jackson / Sun-Times file photo

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Six brave, or at least somewhat emotionally secure, Chicago aldermen stepped before a bank of microphones Friday in the second-floor lobby at City Hall.

They nudged Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th) to the front.

“All right, Rod, we’re right behind you,” one of them said with a laugh.

Sawyer, son of a former mayor, turned and shot them a what-am-I-getting myself-into look.

Then, after a meandering preamble, Sawyer got to the point: “We’re here today to propose a fee that none of us really want but think it’s necessary, and that is a garbage fee.”

OPINION

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With those words, the prospect of a first-ever separate garbage-collection fee for Chicago homeowners took a giant step toward becoming reality.

Upon hearing Sawyer, the other alderman arrayed behind him — Patrick O’Connor (40th), Brian Hopkins (2nd), Michelle Harris (8th), Danny Solis (25th) and Joe Moore (49th) — tamed their urge to turn and run.

None of them can be certain how voters will react to this fee, which, of course, is a tax by another name, as Harris would later accidentally acknowledge with a slip of the tongue.

But their every instinct must tell them it could be a career-ender, especially when coupled with the property-tax increases they also will probably support.

So I have to give all six of them credit for being willing to stand up there and accept the responsibility so often shirked under Mayor Richard M. Daley.

I also give all but one of them credit for not trying to claim that Chicagoans had been getting their garbage service for free all these years, as if those property taxes they were paying didn’t count.

The likelihood is that Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who has gotten behind the idea of a garbage fee, will now be able to find 20 more aldermen willing to support the plan outlined Friday.

That would involve a per-household fee of no more than $11 a month, with a 50 percent discount for senior citizens.

“It seems like I’m kind of wearing the jacket for this,” observed Sawyer, who indeed was the first this year to publicly endorse an idea that has been broached — and rejected — for a long time.

“If it’s bad, I’ll take the blame,” Sawyer said. “If it’s beneficial, we’ll all benefit and take the credit for it.”

Not much chance of the latter, I’d say, at least when it comes to taking credit.

That doesn’t mean it won’t be beneficial. If the goal is to create a new revenue source, the garbage fee makes as much sense as most.

But I don’t see voters EVER being grateful for the invention of a new tax, even if it is one that suburban homeowners routinely pay. As a friend keeps telling me, it won’t bring suburban-quality schools to city residents.

And no matter where it starts, you can be sure the garbage fee is destined to escalate in future years until it more closely approximates the $33 a month per household the city says it costs to collect the garbage.

The other aldermen took turns practicing the apologetic speeches they will deliver when the City Council votes on the garbage fee.

“This tax is something that’s been thrown around, or this fee is something, that’s been throw around for a long, long time,” Harris said, momentarily breaking the commandment that politicians not call a tax a tax if there is an acceptable euphemism available.

“As an alderman, this is not something that we come to lightly to ask constituents to pay for a service that they currently receive for free,” Harris said, failing to heed my prior advice not to insult the intelligence of property taxpayers in that manner.

O’Connor, the mayor’s floor leader, said the garbage fee is not yet a “done deal.” But the elements of the deal are now in place.

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