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Emanuel adjusts garbage grid to save $7M before imposing fee

Chicago is changing the grid boundaries that will allow the city to reduce the daily deployment of garbage trucks, saving $7 million a year. | Sun-Times file photo

Five months ago, Inspector General Joe Ferguson said Mayor Rahm Emanuel was not squeezing the maximum savings out of his decision to switch garbage collection from a ward-by-ward to a grid system because of outdated performance standards, inadequate record keeping and an inaccurate count of the number of households served.

Two years after accusing the mayor of overstating the grid system savings by $42 million, Ferguson concluded that Emanuel’s Department of Streets and Sanitation was assigning more garbage collection crews than are needed to meet its own performance standards, potentially shortchanging other vital services, including forestry.

Now as he prepares to impose a suburban-style garbage collection fee on top of a record $500 million property tax increase, Emanuel is responding to Ferguson’s audit with $7 million in additional savings.

In partnership with Laborers Union Local 1001, the city has identified adjustments to grid boundaries that will allow the city to reduce the daily deployment of garbage trucks from 310 to 292. The savings generated will free up resources for other vital services like tree-trimming and rodent control, the mayor’s office said.

When Chicago made the switch from a ward-by-ward system treasured by Chicago aldermen to a grid system that crosses ward boundaries, the number of trucks was reduced from 352 to 317. Last year, the number of trucks was further reduced to 310.

The $3 million in savings was used to bankroll a long-awaited “inventory” of refuse and recycling carts with the potential to generate further savings by allowing the city to more efficiently assign personnel and trucks.

Now the fleet will be reduced even further, thanks to increased recycling and a corresponding reduction in the number of black carts used for routine garbage. City Hall also scoured “time-in-alley reports” to determine how long each truck spent in alleys and how much time they had left at the end of the day to be servicing more units.

The decision to further reduce the daily fleet is a direct response to the inspector general’s latest hit.

After auditing performance between April and August of last year, Ferguson concluded there were too many garbage collection crews assigned to do too little work.

The city standard calls for garbage crews to spend at least 300 minutes a day making collections and to get through each alley in 40 minutes or less.

But Ferguson concluded that the work of picking up the garbage and sweeping each alley was actually done 18 minutes faster than the city standard. And the entire day’s routes were completed in three hours — not the five hours allotted by the brass at Streets and Sanitation.

Exacerbating the problem is the city’s third-largest department uses 15-year-old U.S. Census data that does not reflect the current number of households entitled to receive city garbage collection services. And Streets and Sanitation has not yet completed a promised inventory of city-provided refuse carts.

Although GPS tracks the work of city crews, the technology misses some of the critical work they do, the audit states. That includes “collections along curb routes, in-between load assignments like sweeping alleys and post-route assignments, such as emptying baskets” along commercials strips.

“We concluded that DSS did not assign enough alleys per route to fill 300 minutes. Therefore, according to its own metric, DSS may not be maximizing its use of available Bureau of Sanitation staff resources for grid collections,” Ferguson wrote then.

Streets and Sanitation “appears to be evaluating crews and operations based on a standard that is incongruous with field operations,” the IG said.

“This diminishes the standard’s usefulness, both for assessing crew performance and for optimizing grid operations,” Ferguson wrote.

“Without knowing the actual number of constituents served and without using relevant and current standards to assess all work performed by crews, [the department] cannot know if it is efficiently allocating work assignments. As a result, divisions may remain unbalanced, even after the department’s planned adjustments. In addition, these gaps limit [the city’s] ability to optimally allocate crews to each bureau [e.g. sanitation, forestry].”

At the time, Emanuel responded with a promise to do better. Now he’s delivering — just in time to try to show Chicagoans that the fee they will soon be paying for garbage collection is being used more wisely.

“With the partnership of Laborers Local 1001, the grid system has enabled the city to continue providing quality garbage collection services while redirecting $28 million in operating costs to support the citywide recycling and other key DSS Services,” the mayor said in a news release. “We remain committed to respecting Chicago’s hardworking taxpayers by delivering quality neighborhood services in the smartest and most efficient manner to hold down their costs.”

Streets and Sanitation Commissioner Charles Williams added, “We’ve been working with Laborers Local 1001 to evaluate many variables like the amount of time crews were spending on routes and daily tonnage reports, as well as implementing many of the recommendations provided by the Office of the Inspector General, which has resulted in these additional modifications that will further improve the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of the program.”

The pledge to redirect the savings to city services should ease the fears of Chicago aldermen who are concerned that the decision to impose a garbage collection fee will ultimately pressure the city to reduce the size of city crews.

In at least one North Shore suburb, a resident with one cart for routine garbage and another for recyclables pays $104.72 every four months or $314.16 a year for both pickups. The weekly pickups are made by a private scavenger service that uses one-man crews.

In Chicago, the Department of Streets and Sanitation still operates with three employees on a truck. Unless work rules are changed or garbage collection is privatized, costs would be higher but the first-ever fees would have to be lower.

“I have a lot of laborers and union workers in my ward. When they lose their jobs, they can’t pay their mortgages. That leads to vacancies and foreclosures,” Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th), chairman of the City Council’s Black Caucus, said last week.

Ald. George Cardenas (12th), chairman of the City Council’s Committee on Health and Environmental Protection, is resigned to a garbage collection fee and so concerned about the pressure to privatize the service, he’s proposing a protection of sorts: an “enterprise fund” for the Department of Streets and Sanitation similar to the water and aviation funds.

The garbage fee — expected to be a monthly assessment of $11 or $12 per household — will be a tough sell in the City Council.

Black aldermen have urged Emanuel to trash it on grounds it will leave some neighborhoods filthy, breed widespread avoidance and, possibly, cost laborers their jobs.

The chairman of the City Council’s Hispanic Caucus has said it would be “very difficult to do both” a garbage fee and a $500 million property tax increase that amounts to a “double-whammy” on homeowners.

And Southwest Side Ald. Mike Zalewski (23rd), a former deputy commissioner at Streets and Sanitation, has argued that the mayor’s plan lets homeowners who stockpile carts off too easy.