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Rahm Emanuel to switch trash pickup to grid system to save $60 million

Mayor Rahm Emanuel asked consultants develop route system for residential trash collectiwithout regard ward boundaries. | Al Podgorski~Sun-Times

Mayor Rahm Emanuel asked consultants to develop a route system for residential trash collection without regard to ward boundaries. | Al Podgorski~Sun-Times

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Updated: October 3, 2011 1:07PM

Mayor Rahm Emanuel has decided to risk a City Council rebellion by switching from a ward-by-ward garbage collection system to a grid plan to save $60 million a year, influential aldermen said Thursday.

Last month, Emanuel asked consultants to “develop a route system” for residential trash collection that creates an “equitable workload for drivers” without regard to ward boundaries.

At the time, top mayoral aides said they were simply exploring the idea and that no final decision would be made until consultants drafted their plans and determined how much money could be saved.

On Thursday, several influential aldermen told a different story. They said Emanuel is convinced that a grid system would save the city as much as $60 million a year and that he is not prepared to forgo that savings just to keep the City Council happy. Not when he has promised to erase a $635.7 million shortfall without raising taxes.

Instead, the mayor has asked his top allies to find a way to sell the grid system to a City Council determined to maintain control over the housekeeping services that are an alderman’s bread and butter.

“Politically, they’ve decided that any big-ticket item is worth looking at and this is one of them,” said Ald. Pat O’Connor (40th), the mayor’s City Council floor leader. “We don’t know the plan or whether we can implement it [in time] to get in a full year of savings. But the decision has been made to go down the road and see what a grid would look like. The administration can’t pass up the possibility to try and implement it.”

Last year, former Mayor Richard M. Daley infuriated aldermen by stripping them of their exclusive control of a street sweeper in each ward and switching to a grid system that divided Chicago into 33 same-size chunks.

Switching to a grid system for residential garbage collection could trigger a similar rebellion.

During closed-door briefings on the mayor’s preliminary 2012 budget, many aldermen said they were dead set against the idea for fear that it would deprive them of their ability to respond to special requests for services.

O’Connor thinks there are ways to ease those concerns.

“You’ve got to develop a protocol that ensures that there is a certain amount of equipment available to the wards on a shared basis that’s off the grid,” he said.

Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd) is one of the few aldermen who has no problem switching to a grid “so long as there is still an ability to have a staffer or superintendent who can handle unique situations” which happen “a dozen times every day.”

“People call to say, ‘There’s fly-dumping, they missed my pickup or they’re dumping trash on my street,’ ” Waguespack said.

“If there was still the ability to handle those unique situations and they could guarantee a constituent would be taken care of on the same day or within a fairly short time frame, then I would be prone to supporting it,” he said. “But a lot of aldermen will fight that tooth and nail. What they’re saying is, ‘You still get the calls, but you don’t have any control.’ ”

Last month, Emanuel announced a “managed competition” between private recycling contractors and city employees that, over time, will deliver blue-cart recycling to 359,000 Chicago households now without it.

The recycling contracts set the stage for the city to set up a similar competition for normal refuse collection.

A grid system is widely viewed as the first step toward that end.

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