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Outgoing Streets and San chief acknowledges ‘growing pains’ in new trash pickup system

Streets   Sanitatiworkers garbage truck work South Shore area. File Photo. | Brian Jackson~Sun-Times

Streets & Sanitation workers on a garbage truck work in the South Shore area. File Photo. | Brian Jackson~Sun-Times

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Updated: November 25, 2012 11:47AM

Outgoing Streets and Sanitation Commissioner Tom Byrne on Tuesday acknowledged “growing pains” in the switch from ward-by-ward to grid-based garbage collection, but he said he’s working through those problems.

A handful of aldermen have complained about overflowing baskets on commercial strips, missed pickups and rotten working conditions in the switch to a system Mayor Rahm Emanuel is counting on to save $20 million this year and up to $60 million a year once it’s implemented citywide.

Aldermen have further complained that it takes a few days and as long as a week to get access to spare trucks set aside to allow aldermen to continue to respond to special requests for service.

Testifying Tuesday at City Council budget hearings, Byrne acknowledged a few startup problems, including two days of overtime that triggered what he called “totally untrue” rumors about runaway overtime.

“There is gonna be growing pains in everything you do. ... It’s a learning curve. We worked one hour and 25 minutes [overtime] one day in the first week to get our day picked up until we re-adjusted our routes and we no longer had any overtime,” Byrne said.

“Grid garbage was not put in to do overtime. Grid garbage was put in there to save taxpayers money. It was incumbent on us to look at what we did that day and add a route and solve that problem.”

Byrne also acknowledged a few wrinkles in the grid built around Wrigley Field.

“We built it going from Southport east across Wrigley Field, but when we got to that day of service, the Cubs were playing Boston. Obviously, we were stuck in the middle of everything,” he said.

“We re-engineered that route to go from the east to the west and we don’t interfere with Wrigley Field anymore. We get through that grid pretty quickly.”

Under questioning from aldermen who view Streets and Sanitation as their “bread and butter,” Byrne said 190,000 households have already made the switch to the grid system, allowing the city to collect the same volume of garbage with 15 to 22 fewer trucks each day.

Those economies, coupled with the $4.7 million in savings generated by managed competition between city employees and private contractors, will bankroll citywide recycling beginning next spring and continuing through the end of 2013.

“We will have the city fully recycled at the end of 2013 or the fall of 2013,” Byrne said. “In the spring after the snow, we’ll get the 320,000 [households without recycling] on board.”

The Chicago Sun-Times reported earlier this month that City Hall 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 Emanuel’s 2013 budget.

On Tuesday, Byrne talked about his efforts to put employees on disability to work baiting alleys in response to a rat invasion tied, in part, to Chicago’s unseasonably mild winter, spring and summer.

“The forestry worker terminally ill after a tree fell on him. He’s never gonna come back to work. We want him back home where he needs to be and give him disability. But, we want to take the people that we know are out there with [limited] restrictions and we need to get `em back to work,” he said.

Tuesday’s budget hearing was Byrne’s last at the helm of the city’s third-largest department.

He will be replaced by Charles Williams, a former high-ranking Chicago Police officer with no experience in the nuts-and-bolts of snow removal or garbage collection.

Williams sat at Byrne’s side as aldermen grilled and mostly praised the outgoing commissioner.

Ald. Michelle Harris (8th) warned the new boss that, pretty soon, “We will be calling you with all these headaches.”

Ald. Deborah Graham (29th) added, “This is gonna be an experience for you. There was politics at the Police Department, but there’s some politics in Streets and San.”

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