Save trees, kill rats via $3.2M in ’13 city budget
BY FRAN SPIELMAN City Hall Reporter firstname.lastname@example.org October 6, 2012 9:58AM
City tree-trimmers deploy a new strategy to reduce open requests for service in Chicago with a new method of "blitzing" neighborhoods using a ward-based grid system. Streets and Sanitation Forestry Department workers remove trees near the Edison Park area. | Al Podgorski~Chicago Sun-Times
Updated: November 8, 2012 12:00PM
Chicago will trim more older trees, plant more new trees and bolster rodent-control services in response to a rat population surge, thanks to $3.2 million in new spending tied to Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s 2013 budget.
By hiring the equivalent of 41 full-time employees, Emanuel hopes to respond to 20,000 additional tree-trimming requests, reducing a backlog that was 18 months long when he took office.
“We are [still] behind. But, we have knocked that down dramatically ... We are less behind from what we inherited,” the mayor said.
The new hirings will be financed by $2.2 million in savings generated by the switch to a grid system and by another round of “managed competition” between city employees and private contractors.
Laborer’s Union Local 1001 won the citywide tree-trimming competition by bidding $1.4 million, nearly half the $2.7 million bid by the cheapest private sector company.
Local 1001 won the right to keep its forestry jobs — and gain 41 members — with help from a series of work-rule changes ironed out in May.
The deal allowed newly hired Streets and Sanitation employees to be paid at an hourly rate of $20 — $13 lower than the current rate of pay — and be cross-trained in other jobs so they can be moved freely among those jobs based on the city’s needs.
Instead of six months, those new hires now have a four-year probationary period. And instead of pre-negotiated pay hikes, they get raises based on hours worked.
Chemical company experts have warned that Chicago risks losing all 91,000 of its parkway trees — triggering removal and replacement costs as high as $100 million by 2020 — unless it steps up treatment for the tree-killing emerald ash borer.
The city is in no position to make that investment, nor does Emanuel believe it’s necessary. But, he acknowledged the need to start down that long road, with $1 million more in 2013.
“You can’t deal with it in one year. You’ve got to deal with the disease. Some of ’em, you’ve got to remove. Some of ’em, you’ve got to treat, then re-planting,” the mayor said.
“When it comes to forestry — both planting of trees, which helps on the value of a home, as well as the quick response for a 311 call — we will have more crews at a price we can afford. And they’ll be on an efficient system to respond to our residents [so] 20,000 more trees will be trimmed than we could have done before.”
The mayor’s response to a rat invasion tied, in part, to Chicago’s unseasonably mild winter, spring and summer is to put at least five Streets and San employees on disability to work baiting alleys.
The city is currently baiting 588 alleys per week. The reinforcements are expected to do 200 more alleys per week, a 34 percent increase.
The bottom line is that a city forced last year to sharply reduce tree trimming and rodent control services as it struggled to keep streets clean and pick up garbage amid a two-year hiring freeze and chronic absenteeism will no longer be boxed in.
Absenteeism is down 26 percent, thanks to 194 suspension days served by drivers accused of taking unexcused absences and 268 suspension days for laborers.
“We used to take from one service to do another service because we couldn’t afford to do [them all]. That was wrong … Those are false choices. Taxpayers pay for all of those services and I expect us to deliver all of those services. And that’s exactly what we’re gonna do,” the mayor said.
The mayor praised Local 1001 for winning a competition that some insiders thought was stacked against them.
“In recycling, I wanted to keep competition in place. Here in tree trimming, the wages and work-rule reforms were so dramatically different than private, they won the work outright,” the mayor said.