Talking Trash in Chicago

To save millions of dollars, Rahm Emanuel wants to change the way garbage is collected. Will the mayor’s idea survive the politics of patronage?
by | September 7, 2011 AT 5:00 PM

There's nothing like a fiscal crisis to promote government efficiency. But don't expect elected officials to give up patronage opportunities and the power that goes with them without a fight, even in the midst of financial stress.

Witness a story unfolding in Chicago, where Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the former White House chief of staff, wants to change the way the city collects trash as part of an effort to make good on his promise to wipe out a deficit of over $635 million without raising taxes.

Trash is currently picked up on a ward-by-ward basis, with the local alderman holding sway over the service in each of Chicago's 50 wards. But Emanuel wants to change to a so-called grid system that ignores ward boundaries and breaks the city into 33 equal-sized garbage-collection zones. Chicago's inspector general says the change would trim more than $30 million from a $141 million annual trash-collection budget. The mayor says it would save $60 million.

The estimates seem plausible when you compare Chicago's trash-removal costs to those in Los Angeles, which collects more garbage from more households over a larger area and uses fewer trucks each day. L.A. is split into six districts for purposes of trash removal, and city councilors aren't involved.

As one blogger aptly put it, Chicago's ward map "was not designed for the convenience of garbage truck drivers. It was designed to re-elect sitting aldermen and preserve the racial balance on the City Council." One ward is basically cut in half by a cemetery.

But housekeeping is a Chicago alderman's bread and butter. Nothing wins votes like delivering the goods on constituent services such as trash removal. And the aldermen are still smarting from losing a battle with former Mayor Richard Daley last year that took away each alderman's exclusive control over a street sweeper.

Then there's the matter of patronage jobs. Each alderman hires a streets-and-sanitation ward superintendent who makes $70,000 to $113,000 per year, a refuse coordinator ($51,000-$86,000) and a clerk ($35,000-$59,000).

Alas, it seems there may be a compromise on the horizon. One alderman who supports the mayor has talked about ensuring that wards have access to some trash-collection equipment apart from the grid system. Another has no problem as long as there is a ward-based staffer or superintendent "who can handle unique situations" that happen "a dozen times every day."

The compromise may be worthwhile if it ensures responsiveness to citizen concerns without eating away at too much of the savings.

Moving to a grid system for trash pick-up may turn out to be just a prelude to the real battle. In July, Mayor Emanuel announced a plan to use private as well as municipal employees to expand the city's recycling services. Some see his current proposal as a first step toward privatizing some garbage-removal services as well.

The corollary to crises promoting government efficiency is to never let a good crisis go to waste. With White House stints in two administrations and six years in Congress under his belt, Rahm Emanuel seems to have learned those lessons well.