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African-American aldermen want Emanuel to trash plans for garbage fee

African-American aldermen are urging Mayor Rahm Emanuel to trash plans to impose a suburban-style garbage collection fee on grounds it will leave some neighborhoods filthy, breed widespread avoidance and, possibly, cost laborers their jobs.

After his budget team held closed-door meetings with aldermen that produced “70-plus ideas,” Emanuel said there was a “building concensus” in the City Council on “at least two” revenue ideas: “Some form of a garbage fee like other communities around the state and country have. [And] a fee around e-cigarettes and other tobacco products that are not cigarettes.”

Ald. Anthony Beale (9th), chairman of the City Council’s Transportation Committee, begs to differ when it comes to a garbage fee that most suburbanites have grown accustomed to paying in addition to their normal property tax bills.

“I believe that a garbage fee is one of the worst ideas we can possibly have. It will cause more harm than good,” Beale said.

“We’ll have garbage everywhere in this city. You will have people putting garbage in their neighbors [containers] who are paying the fee. You’ll have people just dumping their garbage in alleys because they’re not gonna pay. And it will be a nightmare administratively to collect another bill. You’re adding administrative resources for billing. We need to look at other alternatives.”

Monthly garbage fees in other cities

  • Evanston: $17.95 + fees for yard waste
  • Oak Park: $23.88 + fees for yard waste
  • Milwaukee: $15.58
  • Atlanta: $25.60 + $7.33 for recycling
  • Austin: $40.15
  • LA: $41.32
  • San Francisco: $51.80 + $4.12 for yard waste + $4.12 for recycling

Ald. Howard Brookins (21st), former chairman of the City Council’s Black Caucus, said he would rather vote for a $600 million property tax increase than vote to impose Chicago’s first-ever garbage collection fee.

“I don’t like the idea of paying a garbage can tax or whatever you want to call it for the individual residents. That disproportionately affects those in my community,” Brookins said.

“You have a lot of ways to recoup some of the money on the property tax. If you pay income taxes, that is a deduction on your income tax. If you’re a senior, you have a senior freeze and senior exemptions. So that won’t harm the residents in my ward. And we have a lot of residents in the 21st Ward who are municipal employees. So we have to do whatever we can to preserve” that workforce.

Brookins was hard-pressed to explain why he’d rather walk the plank politically — by voting for a 70- or 80-percent increase in the city’s property tax levy — than vote to impose an annual garbage collection fee of $100-a-more-per container.

“I just don’t like it. My residents have expressed a desire not to pay for garbage pickup. Yes, I understand they do that in the suburbs. But that idea right now is not sitting well with my constituents. I can’t articulate why they don’t like it,” he said.

“At my last town hall meeting, a lot of people just expressed significant concern about paying for garbage pickup. They believe that’s already included in their taxes and that’s something the city should do as part of its mandate for health and safety.”

Even Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th), newly elected Black Caucus chairman, said he’s having second thoughts about the garbage fee that he was the first to suggest.

“A lot of people think garbage fees will lead to people trying to avoid paying by not having cans or not having enough cans or by putting garbage into other peoples’ receptacles. People are starting to worry about that,” Sawyer said.

“There are a lot of questions I want answered. I need to know how it will roll out and how those problems would be solved.”

Sawyer acknowledged that at least some of his concern stems from the pressure to cut costs and jobs once the city starts charging for garbage collection.

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. The weekly pickups are made by a private scavenger service that uses one-person 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.

Chicago would almost certainly have to start smaller to get residents of 600,000 single-family homes, two-, three-flats and four-flats used to the idea of paying for a service they’ve grown accustomed to getting for free.

“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,” Sawyer said.

Despite the mounting opposition, Ald. Pat O’Connor (40th), Emanuel’s City Council floor leader, has said it’s no longer an issue of whether Chicago will have a garbage collection fee. The question is, how much?

O’Connor has noted that a “very large percentage” of Chicagoans already pay for garbage collection. They rent or own in multiunit residential buildings that don’t get city pickups.

“If you’ve never done it before, a lot of people will say, ‘This is terrible.’ But to the extent that Chicago is becoming a destination for people who are not native Chicagoans — and that’s a growing number of people — this isn’t going to be new. It’ll be something they’ve seen before. It might be easier [to sell politically] than we think,” O’Connor told the Chicago Sun-Times last week.

City Hall sources have pegged the number of households that already pay for private garbage collection at 400,000. Another 600,000 get city pickups at no additional cost.