The politics behind Chicago's garbage bins

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  • Chris Wronski
The City Council took up an ordinance Wednesday that few aldermen know much about, except that it's likely to raise the cost of living in Chicago for apartment and condo dwellers. Those who know more aren't talking. The council passed it anyway.

The measure concerns one of the least sexy issues imaginable: how the city regulates and taxes Dumpsters owned by private waste haulers. But the way it became law offers a snapshot of how policies are often forged at City Hall.

"I think we've seen time and time again that when we approve things blindly, and then the actual numbers come in, we end up being like, 'Oh my!'" said Leslie Hairston (Fifth Ward), one of the few aldermen to vote against the measure.

Garbage is big business. A handful of private waste haulers pick up the trash at the city's commercial businesses and residential buildings with more than four units. The cost of this service is included in residents' rent or condo fees.

A few years ago Mayor Richard M. Daley realized that the city was broke and he had to do more than sell off bridges and parking meters. So he and his allies began eyeing Dumpsters as a source of cash.

After some political skirmishes, the city began requiring that the waste haulers pay between $51 and $492 a year for licenses to keep Dumpsters in the alley—fees that were imposed before city officials even knew how many of these receptacles were out there. It turned out that their initial estimate of 40,000 was way low. The fees generated millions of dollars.

But what if the city could make even more money?

Several aldermen told me that along the way a private company came to the city with the idea of acquiring technology to help them better count and track Dumpsters.

City officials learned that they could make the waste companies equip all of the Dumpsters with what's called a radio-frequency identification (RFID) strip—something that would enable city workers to drive down the alleys with a scanning device and check to see whether each Dumpster was properly licensed.

This might make it easier to crack down on haulers that weren't doing a good job of dealing with overflowing garbage; it also would almost certainly force a few more of them to pay fees to the city.

In 2012 Alderman Ed Burke, the powerful chairman of the finance committee, proposed an ordinance requiring that each "commercial refuse container" be equipped with a "medallion" using RFID technology to transmit licensing and ownership information.

The proposal sat in Burke's committee until this week. By this time the ordinance also specified that the city could raise Dumpster fees by an additional 10 percent "to administer data collection using the verification technology"—essentially a tax hike on businesses and apartment and condo dwellers, since the waste companies are likely to pass on the costs to their customers, who have few alternatives.

Some aldermen on the finance committee were unaware the measure was coming up. "I heard about it when I got to the chamber yesterday," said Alderman Ray Suarez (31st), a mayoral loyalist.

As is customary, mayoral aides provided aldermen with briefing sheets helping to explain why they should support the measure. And indeed, once the item came before the committee, a couple of aldermen announced that the city had to do something about Dumpsters full of trash that the waste companies were neglecting.

Others, like Suarez, didn't think the proposal was a bad idea even though they weren't aware of any major problems prompting it. "In my ward, we haven't found too many renegade Dumpsters," he told me.

But Streets and Sanitation officials weren't able to answer basic questions about the new rules, including how much the technology costs, how long it would take to install, and how the city planned to enforce the law.

Hairston was furious. She noted that the city still hadn't found a way to get most buildings recycling. She added: "I can't wait to see who gets this deal and who's going to benefit from this."

City officials vowed that the waste haulers would pay for the new technology, not the city, but Hairston was unmoved. She was the only committee member who voted against the measure.

Among those watching the proceedings in the gallery was Michael Kasper, best known as an election-law attorney for state house speaker Michael Madigan and Rahm Emanuel during his fight to get on the ballot three years ago.

Kasper is also a registered lobbyist at City Hall whose clients include Sonrai Systems, a waste-hauling and equipment company that has been a pioneer in the use of RFID technology in trash receptacles. Neither Kasper nor Sonrai officials returned calls for comment.

Hairston and her colleagues Robert Fioretti (Second), Pat Dowell (Third), Willie Cochran (20th), Brendan Reilly (42nd), Michele Smith (43rd), John Arena (45th), and Harry Osterman (48th) asked to be recorded as voting no to Burke's Dumpster measure.

Burke's spokesman couldn't tell me where the idea for the new Dumpster regulations had come from. "Well, we have a lot of ideas," he said. He told me he didn't know whether a private company had initially pitched it.

After the meeting I asked Burke himself as he was leaving the council chambers. He paused a moment and then kept walking.

Hairston says she's not done questioning the Emanuel administration about the impact of the ordinance. "You mean you've talked to some company about this and you don't even have any numbers? Come on. Just give me some information."

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