Rahm Emanuel talks trash -- in good way
BY FRAN SPIELMAN City Hall Reporter
Mayoral challenger Rahm Emanuel isn't exactly planning to trash Chicago's garbage collection system. But he's promising big changes to wring as much as $65 million out of the annual cost.
If elected mayor, the former White House chief-of-staff says he'd implement a process that could end in at least partial privatization. He says he would:
Â*Establish a "benchmark" price per ton after comparing the cost of collecting Chicago's 1 million tons of annual garbage to costs in 10 major cities.
Â*Give the city's 1,142-strong, $173.7 million-a-year refuse-collection army a chance to generate the savings necessary to meet those benchmarks.
Â*Switch from a ward-by-ward to a grid or zone system of collecting garbage if Phase Two doesn't work.
Â*And, if all else fails, implement a "managed competition" between city employees and private companies to achieve savings.
One way or the other, Emanuel estimated that Chicago taxpayers would end up saving between $40 million and $65 million a year.
He noted that tiny and more mild Charlotte, N.C., adopted a similar approach, reducing its costs to $90 a ton, compared to Chicago's nearly $174 a ton.
Charlotte city employees beat out private companies in three of four zones, an outcome that Emanuel suspects would be duplicated here.
"You've got to have the competition of pricing. We don't have that today. We're doing it the way we've always done it. We don't know how the cost-per-ton in Chicago compares. Pricing allows you to establish benchmarks to do it better," Emanuel said.
"Other cities have done this. They're not better than us. They just had the will to make changes. We have to make changes to find savings. Is this the best way to get the best bang for the buck for taxpayers? That's my principle. That's my North Star."
Emanuel said he's determined to phase in his plan because, "You're asking aldermen and people to make changes in a system they feel secure in. Change is hard."
But, he also repeated a mantra he has used before: "Never allow inertia to become the enemy of reform."
Emanuel's belief that savings can be wrung out of garbage collection costs is well-founded.
Two years ago, then-Inspector General David Hoffman concluded that Chicago was wasting $21 million-a-year on garbage collection crews "paid to do nothing" for 25 percent of their time on the clock.
Mayor Daley branded the loafing "criminal activity" and vowed to "take the necessary steps to fire" the slackers. Then-Streets and Sanitation Commissioner Michael Picardi pledged to "find these people and get rid of 'em." No one was ever disciplined.
Last week, Hoffman's successor Joe Ferguson infuriated aldermen by suggesting in the middle of City Council budget hearings that the city either privatize garbage collection to save $112.2 million-a-year or keep it in-house, but do it cheaper.
That can be done, he said, by using one laborer on all trucks to save $10.3 million-a-year or changing to a grid system for an annual savings of $29.6 million.
Streets and Sanitation Commissioner Tom Byrne countered that privatizing garbage collection would "decimate" city snow removal, which uses the same city employees and some of the same equipment.
Daley's final budget calls for privatizing curbside recycling in 2011. But, he has acknowledged that the savings generated by a private contractor would not be enough to expand recycling beyond the 241,000 households that already have the service.
That leaves 359,000 households in the lurch.
Laborers Union Local 1001 has been lobbying for a $10-a-month fee for recycling pick-ups to raise $72 million--enough to bankroll the citywide switch to curbside recycling.
The union has also urged aldermen to establish a pilot program that would allow his members to compete with private scavenger services that pick up garbage at small businesses.
After outlining his trash plan, Emanuel refused to respond to opponent Carol Moseley Braun's attempt to tag him with responsibility for -- and accuse of abandoning ship before -- the Election Day "shellacking" handed to President Obama and his fellow Democrats.
Nor would Emanuel respond to mayoral challenger Gery Chico's decision to lampoon the Hollywood fund-raiser for Emanuel thrown by the candidate's super-agent brother, Ari Emanuel, whose hard-driving persona inspired the HBO Series, "Entourage."
"I'm offering ideas for the people of Chicago to meet the challenges" the city faces, he said. "They'll run their campaigns. I'm gonna run my campaign."