For most of the past year Mayor Daley and other top officials have stuck to their script and blamed the poor economy for the ongoing budget deficits that have forced them to cut services and enter into “responsible and creative” privatization deals.
“This is a very difficult economy, and it’s not going away for a couple of years,” Daley said last fall, shortly before budget and leasing season began. “That’s the prediction of all the economists. It’s going to be a long, long, tough economy, and next year’s going to be even worse. So I have always thought that if you have a public asset that can be used for infrastructure purposes, about putting people back to work in businesses like that, I think it’s very, very important.”
It’s hard to challenge their central point—as the mayor points out, municipalities across the country are facing deficits.
But the blame game hasn’t been working that well around here lately. Some aldermen, tired of being attacked by voters for slow snow removal, spikes in crime, and the parking meter fiasco, have been griping that a lack of planning and transparency by the administration has made Chicago’s financial problems even worse than they would have been. As an example they cite the administration’s poorly conceived plan to put a tax on Dumpsters.
Last summer, not long after administration officials were first acknowledging the depth of the budget hole, they floated a proposal [PDF] to radically overhaul the way private haulers collect trash at apartment buildings, condos, and businesses, arguing that a city-regulated “franchise” system would increase recycling rates and save consumers money.
Property owners and business leaders reacted with outrage, saying there were major logistical problems with the city plan and blasting the administration for not reaching out to them sooner. The proposal was yanked.
But it turned out that officials had pushed the idea for more than its purported environmental benefits—they’d figured that auctioning off the rights to pick up trash would bring in lots of revenue at a time when the city was starved for it.
Instead, they came up with a last-minute alternative: a tax on alley “refuse containers,” ranging from $80 to $780 a year depending on the size of the dumpster and the type of building it served. They estimated it would generate about $8 million annually, and it was worked into the budget presented for consideration by the City Council last fall.
Aldermen howled, calling it a burdensome tax that would be passed on to renters and small businesses already struggling through the recession. “They said it’s the waste hauler who will be picking up the fee, but we know they’ll pass it on to consumers,” said 32nd Ward alderman Scott Waguespack. “That’s economics 101.”
Waguespack and other aldermen also say the administration didn’t have a firm grasp of how many people would be affected or exactly what kind of money would come in. City officials estimated there were about 40,000 Dumpsters eligible to be taxed; aldermen thought that figure was absurdly low. City officials said they’d check around.
“I think that’s information you should work on for a few months, and you should push this when it’s solid,” Waguespack said later. “The amount of homework done on it wasn’t enough to merit it being put in the budget, but they bundled it in there with everything else.”
Yet the griping continued from City Council, and before the budget came up for a vote the administration agreed to hold off on implementing the Dumpster tax until at least April. The budget passed 49-1, with many aldermen noting that they were only supporting it because the Dumpster tax was temporarily off the table. But that just meant that an $8 million gap remained.
In the time since, the administration has tried to revive the tax—this week it was back on the agenda of the council’s finance committee. The range of annual fees had been lowered to $51 to $492.
But aldermen still aren’t signing on. City officials now estimate there are 75,000 Dumpsters across the city, nearly double the last figure, which has only served to make aldermen even less confident. “Nobody knows how many Dumpsters there actually are,” concluded 2nd Ward alderman Robert Fioretti.
When the item was called up during the full City Council meeting yesterday, finance committee chairman Ed Burke announced that he and 40th Ward alderman Patrick O’Connor , the mayor’s council floor leader, were holding it for at least another month.
Meanwhile, the city’s budget gap keeps growing.