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Wednesday, Feb. 18, 2009 09:31 am

Cleaning up Springfield’s garbage

Meet Alexander Harris-Taylor, trash cop

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Housing inspector Alexander Harris-Taylor documents overflowing garbage cans in Enos Park.
Amanda Robert

Alexander Harris-Taylor deftly navigates his city-issued red sedan through the network of streets and snug alleyways in Enos Park, finally stopping in front of 315 E. Rafter.

Bundled in a bulky North Face jacket, he braces against the 4-degree wind-chill and strides toward the rear of the two-family rental house. He whips out a small, silver digital camera and shoots pictures of heaping garbage bags, scattered soda cans and newspapers, and empty cardboard boxes that once held Huggies diapers and Dole bananas.

It’s the second visit Taylor has made to the unkempt backyard. Unfortunately for the owners, he’s not some modern artist or a Dumpster-diver — he’s their friendly neighborhood housing inspector. Since the trash hasn’t budged in the five days since his initial inspection, Taylor calls in the department of public works to clean up the mess. The property owner foots the bill.

Cleaning up neighborhood clutter, along with enforcing the housing code, mowing unruly vacant lots and removing varmint-infested, inoperable vehicles, keeps Taylor and the city’s four other housing inspectors on their toes. They each patrol two wards, operating on a complaint-driven system. Taylor, who inspects 12 neighborhoods including Enos Park, Pillsbury Mills and Melrose Park, handles five to 20 cases each day in Alds. Sam Cahnman and Frank Lesko’s wards.

“We’re in and out of our cars all day long — no matter what the climate is,” Taylor says. “It could be raining, snow, sleet, and we’re out here in this weather. Every day, all day. There is nothing that keeps us from doing our duties, as far as making sure we clean up and take care of the people of the city of Springfield.”

Robert Law, the housing division manager, says his short-staffed department manages to handle 10,000 complaints a year (a few thousand are garbage-related). Thanks to a city trash ordinance passed in October 2007, he says, property owners are now held responsible for signing up for garbage service with a private waste hauler like Allied Waste Services, Lake Area Disposal, or Illini Disposal Inc. At least 500 owners, who previously let their trash pile up or dumped it elsewhere, have signed up for service at the urging of city inspectors.

A city trash ordinance approved in October 2007 mandates that property owners sign up for garbage service with a private waste hauler.
Amanda Robert

“Things have gotten better in the city in the past year regarding trash and no-garbage-service complaints,” Law says. “There’s still a lot left to do, and we’re addressing it. It’s definitely one of our priorities.”

On the frigid February Wednesday, Taylor steers his “mobile office” through the 1000 block of North Fourth Street. He sees a lot of solid waste issues here, and it becomes clear that neighbors are used to seeing a lot of him. They wave and honk their car horns, each time eliciting Taylor’s toothy grin and wave in response.

Alexander Harris-Taylor moved to Springfield from New York City and started as a city housing inspector in 2004. He patrols 12 neighborhoods in wards 4 and 5.
Amanda Robert

Taylor moved to Springfield from New York City, starting as a housing inspector in August 2004. He was inspired by Mayor Rudy Guilliani’s pledge to clean up the Big Apple and wanted to do the same for the capital city. He began work on the east side, inched closer to downtown, then finally landed on the north end last year.

He turns his vehicle down an alley in the 1100 block, responding to a complaint called in a day earlier about fly dumping. This particular problem, which has plagued the city for years, manifests when culprits dump their trash and drive off. Taylor locates the pile of abandoned garbage, and when the nearby property owner says it’s not his, he believes him.

“He’s a good landlord,” Taylor says. “I’ve worked with him before, and I’m assured that he’s upstanding and this is the truth that he’s telling me. Plus, it’s at the edge of an alley.”

Taylor follows strict protocol in dealing with fly dumping. He snaps on a pair of rubber gloves and goes to work digging through the garbage. When Taylor finds old magazines, bills, or mail with the dumper’s address, he’ll work with the police department to send two citations: one for fly-dumping and one for not having garbage service.

If city residents still refuse to sign up for service with a private waste hauler, Taylor takes them to administrative court, convened weekly on Wednesday mornings. Many are landlords who own multiple rental properties and, regardless of the new ordinance, leave it up to their tenants to deal with garbage.

“On some of the trash service issues, they are able to get service and they don’t have to go to court,” Taylor says. “Others will come in and be like, ‘Why do I need trash service?’ It’s a city ordinance for you to have trash service at each one of your properties. If it’s rental or if you own it.

“A lot of the property owners will put into their leases that the tenants need to get the trash service, but now since the ordinance has passed that the property owners are responsible, I write up the property and send a letter to the owner.”

Last week Taylor took two solid waste cases to court. The first was 802 Indiana, for not having garbage service. After his initial inspection Taylor sent the property owners one of his “love letters,” informing them that unless they signed up for garbage service, they’ll go to court for breaking the law. The case was dismissed when owners eventually showed proof that they signed up for garbage service.

The second was 533 Wood, for harboring solid waste and garbage. Usually when inspectors find trash outside of a property or in the alley — like in the case of 315 E. Rafter, Taylor says — they call on public works. But in this case, the property owner didn’t have trash service for three months and instead stacked refuse in her garage. Taylor requested a search warrant to enter the structure to abate the problem.

The city’s trash ordinance, which went into effect on April 1, 2008, gives Taylor and the other housing inspectors the support they need to stop these cases from cropping up. Sponsored by Ward 6 Ald. Mark Mahoney, the law mandates waste haulers to provide monthly reports listing their customers’ addresses, fines residents $250 a month for not having garbage service and, as Taylor mentions, holds landlords responsible for service sign-up.

When it was approved, several aldermen clamored that the ordinance needed more regulation. Mahoney told Illinois Times: “I’m satisfied that we took a step. I know some think the ordinance doesn’t go far enough, but in a year we’ll see how it works and go from there.”

In December the city established the Springfield waste and recycling commission to review the ordinance and evaluate whether or not it’s working. The nine-member commission, comprised of neighborhood association representatives Polly Poskin, Angela Harris and Margaret Ann Gramlich; licensed waste hauler representatives Don Crenshaw Jr. and Dan Jackson; landlords’ association representative Jeff Fickbohm; public representative Ed Wojcicki; and Alds. Mahoney and Lesko, begins meeting Feb. 21.

“We have representatives from all of the interested parties,” Jim Donelan, the mayor’s executive assistant, says. “We’ll get a feel for what were the problems, and how has that changed from a practical everyday standpoint? We’ll hear from the haulers, what’s working and not working? The public has an opportunity to weigh in as well.”

From Taylor’s standpoint, housing inspectors are the spearhead of the ordinance. They’re the officials investigating to make sure all residents have solid waste pickup, and they say it’s doing the trick.

“It’s helping out quite a bit and cutting down on the solid waste issues and problems that we were having,” Taylor says.

Donelan says statistics on exactly how many residents have signed up for garbage service, or been fined for not having service, are not yet available. However, he says the city shares Taylor’s sentiments: “I think it’s safe to say that Springfield, since the ordinance has gone through, is cleaner. From the feedback we get from the people who have an interest in this topic, it’s been good.”

A week later Taylor stands at the front of a first-floor conference room at the Carol Jo Vecchie Women and Children’s Center, listening to the concerns of the Enos Park Neighborhood Association. A professed customer service-type individual, Taylor says he enjoys helping people, and it shows.

He reports that he’s cleaning up the alleys and the no-garbage-service issues on the other side of North Fourth Street. He reassures residents that he’s moving through their four-page list of complaints, all of which should be alleviated within a few days. He asks for any other questions, and a voice from the back calls out, “Alex is the man.”

Marilyn Piland, the association’s executive director, echoes the praise. Since Taylor started as the area’s housing inspector, he’s enforced the new trash ordinance and cut their list of monthly complaints by two-thirds.

“The area has definitely been improved, but because Alex has the tools to enforce it,” Piland says. “Before, we knew there were people who didn’t have trash hauling. They put it out there all the time, or they put it at someone else’s house.

“He’s been really a bear about watching to make sure that nobody fly-dumps. If they do, he digs and gets something to identify them and pins it to them. It’s been wonderful.”

Taylor says he’s not always so popular. Due to the nature of their job, housing inspectors come across irate tenants and property owners constantly. They don’t usually appreciate his love letters, he explains. Working with neighborhood associations is a different story — especially ones that are proactive in bringing their homes and throughways up to code.

“When people come together and take pride in their neighborhood, and take the necessary steps to make it better, and with me being a city worker, if I can help them, aid them, or assist them, I’m there,” Taylor says. “That’s what my job is, that’s what Mayor Davlin hired me for — to make sure I take care of the health and welfare of the people.”

During the first few months of Taylor’s tenure in Enos Park, some of the alleys were still in disarray. He worked from alley to alley, street to street, and says the area shows vast improvement just a year later.

He points to the 800 block of North Sixth Street as one of the biggest turnarounds. Fly-dumpers would sneak into the alley and stuff their garbage into a tiny garage that opened on the back side. Once that was boarded up, Taylor says, the problem stopped. Another trouble spot was the alley directly behind the Qik-N-Ez convenience store at Fifth and North Grand. People would dump mounds of garbage, he says, and tossed it into nearby vacant lots. It’s now just as clean as some of the neighborhood’s most spotless streets, like Eighth and Ninth.

“I love it when I’m on one part of a block and I can look all the way down the alley and not see any solid waste,” Taylor says. “Right there indicates to me that I’m on top of it.”

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