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Thursday, Oct. 4, 2012 07:35 am

Trash talk

Springfield mulls garbage changes

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Springfield has long had trouble figuring out how to dispose of things.

Leaves, for example. Back in the 1980s, the city council passed a ban on leaf burning in the spring, then formed an 11-member leaf commission (really) to figure out what to do once autumn came.

The city’s public works director warned that getting rid of leaves would cost lots and lots of money that the city did not have. Nonetheless, suggestions included hiring youths to rake leaves for the disabled and elderly when autumn arrived, a service never before provided at public expense. Ultimately, the city decided on a revolutionary approach: Residents would put leaves in bags and private garbage haulers and public works crews would pick them up.

This, of course, did not settle the issue. Aldermen in 1991 howled at the idea of citizens paying 25 cents a bag to have leaves picked up.

“This is a bunch of crap, and these people are not going to take it anymore,” declared then Ward 4 Ald. Chuck Redpath, who led a campaign to revive the city’s burn-baby-burn tradition of filling the air with smoke from a bazillion leaves each fall. “The revolt is coming. They’re going to start taking up arms.”

No violence ensued, but a leaf-burning referendum was headed to the ballot in 1992 before then Mayor Ossie Langfelder vetoed the measure the same day that the council approved a “free” leaf pickup plan. Nothing, of course, is free – the city paid private waste haulers for picking up bags, but close enough. The once-burning issue died, instantly, and Springfieldians today would no more torch a pile of leaves than smoke at a city council meeting.

Two decades later, the city is considering another revolutionary idea: Universal garbage pickup, guaranteed by putting the tab on City Water, Light and Power bills. The city also wants to raise monthly recycling fees from 50 cents to $1.50 to cover the cost of yard waste disposal, large item pickup and recycling programs that are now being subsidized by the city’s general fund.

Predictably, torches and pitchforks abounded at two public meetings hosted by the Inner City Older Neighborhoods last week to explain the proposal, answer questions and hear reaction under the watchful eye of police officers who stood in back to keep at least some peace.

“You’re just trying to make more money, is all it is.”

“There’s something wrong with your process – fix your process and stop messing with us.”

“For me – I hate to use the phrase – this is just another redistribution of wealth.”

Yikes, comrade.

No one stood up and said “Give me free garbage service or give me death,” but you get the idea. The freedom to be a scofflaw and not have garbage service, despite mandatory garbage service being the law (albeit unenforceable) in Springfield for a decade, is right up there with the right to show up at a town hall meeting and say stuff that isn’t true. Such as, the city is trying to drive garbage haulers out of business.

“I envision that in the not so far off future, maybe even while our current council is still intact, that they will decide, since they have control of the money and all the accounts, to put the hauling services out for bid,” read a flier distributed at the first meeting held at South Side Christian Church, which drew about 75 people. “Let’s stop this now, before it becomes a very costly bureaucracy!”

Imagine, putting sanitation services up for bid. How un-American!

In any case, garbage collection services aren’t being put up for bid. There isn’t sufficient support on the city council to do that, even though a one-hauler system would likely be the cheapest, most efficient way to get rid of trash while reducing pollution and saving wear-and-tear on city streets that are now traversed by trucks from four companies.

The flier, which contained no information on who wrote it or paid for it, blasted the idea of creating a position of project manager in the public works department to oversee waste disposal – the author predicted “a whole new staff of city employees.” Trouble is, the proposal wouldn’t create any new positions at city hall. That, at least, is what public works director Mark Mahoney vows. You can believe him or believe someone who wouldn’t put their name on a flier with “garbage care” in the title.

“There’s no proposal to do that (create a new position) – there never was,” Mahoney said. “I don’t know where that came from.”

Most of the protest voiced at the two meetings boiled down to this: It isn’t fair for the city to create a system that guarantees that everyone has trash service and that everyone pays for it. Variations on the theme included predictions that the proposal would pose a hardship on senior citizens and snow birds who don’t need trash service while they winter in Florida. Based on the nice-looking vehicles parked outside the meetings and the well-kept appearance of complainers, it didn’t appear that the destitute were in attendance.

Audiences at the meetings appeared to have thought quite a bit about garbage, with naysayers questioning the fairness of charging for garbage service for unoccupied houses that are for sale and pondering what would be done when people fell behind on paying CWLP bills.

One thing seems likely: Once – if – the city makes a revolutionary decision and includes garbage fees on utility bills, the sky will remain where it is while the hullabaloo vanishes like so many leaves in the wind. It has happened before in Springfield when something sensible is done about getting rid of waste.  

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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