The method by which the city of Chicago collects garbage seems like the most esoteric of municipal concerns. But the debate over the possible shift to a "grid system" of trash pick-up speaks to more than just which truck is headed where and when.
At stake is one of Chicago's most time-honored political traditions: the sovereignty of the alderman over his ward, and his direct relationship with his constituents as the guy who gets things done.
Pothole on the street in front of your house? Street lights out? Can't get your alley plowed? Call your alderman, goes the traditional Chicago wisdom. Indeed, each alderman controls a sizable amount of dollars and city resources to address problems just like these.
From the City Council's point of view, this provides a direct level of constituent service, as compared to what might otherwise be an impersonal and unresponsive city bureaucracy. Also, though it's hard to picture an alderman admitting it, it's a nice level of incumbent protection: nothing wins you votes like delivering the goods.
But there's one problem with the system: it's a good deal less efficient than a single, city-wide system would be. In fact, as the Chicago News Cooperative reported earlier in the year, the city's Inspector General thinks the ward-by-ward system is costing the city around $60 million a year.
With Chicago facing a massive municipal budget shortfall, it was almost inevitable that trash collection would come under scrutiny. And it has. As the Chicago Sun-Times reported on Friday, Mayor Rahm Emanuel has approached several influential aldermen saying that a new grid system is in the works. Such a system would give drivers the most efficient routes possible, irrespective of ward boundaries.
The mayor's office is saying that it's only exploring its options. Last month, it asked private consultants to develop a proposal for a grid system, to see just how much the city could save, the Chicago Tribunereported at the time.
The Tribune said of the plan that "the mayor also is setting up a fight with aldermen," and in the Sun-Times piece Friday, Fran Spielman opens by writing that "Mayor Rahm Emanuel has decided to risk a City Council rebellion" by considering a change.
Aside from just consolidating the service, there is some concern among observers that Mayor Emanuel will use the switch to the grid to privatize some trash collection, as well. Emanuel announced an expansion of the city's recycling program last month, which included using many private-sector workers alongside city workers, despite the objections of the city's labor unions.