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City cuts back rat control, forestry services to maintain trash pickups

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM

The Daley administration is making dramatic cutbacks in forestry and rodent control services as it struggles to sweep the streets and pick up garbage amid a two-year hiring freeze and chronic absenteeism.

Lou Phillips, secretary-treasurer of Laborers Union Local 1001, likened Streets and Sanitation Commissioner Tom Byrne to “the little Dutch boy with his finger in the dike.”

“We’re down over 100 sanitation laborers. ... He’s pulling everybody in to pick up garbage. Garbage is their main concern. But, they’re really gonna run into problems on these other services,” Phillips said.

“If there’s a major storm, and trees down, where are you gonna get the people to bail us out? And have you ever seen that commercial where the rats have boom boxes and they’re walking around all dressed up? That’s eventually what’s gonna happen here if we don’t have the people to bait.”

Starting Friday, a Bureau of Forestry that had 50 citywide crews just two years ago will be going down 16 crews, Phillips said.

Rodent control services will be nearly cut in half — to 12 citywide crews, the union has been told.

No longer will Rodent Control employees be responsible for delivering garbage carts to new residents and Chicagoans whose carts have been damaged or stolen. Carts will be delivered to the ward yard, and the ward superintendents will arrange for home deliveries.

“They tried the same thing before, and it failed. They couldn’t get it done. They don’t have the time or the proper equipment to deliver them,” Phillips said.

Streets and Sanitation spokesman Matt Smith portrayed the cuts as temporary and far less drastic.

By stripping Rodent Control of its responsibility for delivering carts, Smith insisted that the city would maintain 15 bait crews, down from 17 currently. And he argued that the Bureau of Forestry, which now has 25 citywide crews, would be going down to 18.

“We are talking about the temporary detailing of personnel based on operational needs and not cuts. When our workers show up as scheduled, we don’t have to draw people from other bureaus to temporarily take their place so absenteeism is very much a key factor,” Smith said in an e-mail response to the Chicago Sun-Times.

Noting that refuse collection is the department’s top priority, Smith said, “Given the extremely heavy volumes of refuse during the spring and summer months, we must be prepared to meet that demand every single day. When absenteeism improves, we would no longer have to draw from other bureaus.”

If a major storm causes heavy tree damage, personnel will be redeployed, with manpower and equipment drawn from other city departments, Smith said.

Last year, Byrne triggered a City Council rebellion by stripping aldermen of their exclusive control of a street sweeper and switching to a grid system that divided Chicago into 33 same-sized chunks.

This year’s cuts have the potential to trigger a similar outcry, considering Forestry already has a backlog of 1,400 tree removal requests and 18,000 tree trim orders, many of them a year old.

“We don’t have enough people for all the programs we’ll be running during spring and summer. It’s that simple,” said Ald. Pat O’Connor (40th), Mayor Daley’s City Council floor leader and a close ally of Byrne.

“If people would show up to work, it wouldn’t be as dire as it is. ... They’re just trying to have a more mobile work force to meet the immediate need.”

Veteran Streets and San employee Fred White predicted an “explosion” in the city’s rat population by the end of summer unless the cuts are reversed.

“At least twice a week, a rat will jump out of a garbage cart, run up the laborers arm and jump off their shoulder,” sending grown men “running down the alley screaming,” White said. Two years ago, Byrne cracked the whip to reduce absenteeism that was sidelining nearly one-third of all laborers every day.

From then on, laborers have been required to call a central telephone number at least one hour before their scheduled reporting time to declare their intention to be absent that day.

Those who don’t are considered “absent without leave” and face disciplinary action.

Currently 309 workers are on leave, even ater Byrne has initiated 1,600 disciplinary cases in the last two years, Smith said.

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