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Friday, April 23, 2004 07:48 am

Talking trash

Roy Rhodes points to a heap of used furniture illegally dumped on vacant lots he owns across the street from his home on Springfield’s southeast side.

The semi-wooded, vacant lots at Melrose and Wirt, a residential intersection on Springfield's southeast side, are a kind of cemetery for worn-out, broken-down furniture.

Splintered chairs and tattered couches, with stuffing spilling out of their cushions, lay overturned in a tangled heap among rubber tires, concrete rubble, and trails of busted bottles and foil wrappers from torn trash bags.

Roy Rhodes, who recently bought the lots and lives in a modest home across the street from them, stands in his manicured lawn eyeing the mess.

"I just spent $2,000 contracting somebody to haul the [trash] out last summer," he growls, shaking his fist.

But Rhodes' clean-up efforts did nothing to dissuade people from using his land as a dumping ground.

He has watched from his home as pick-up trucks roll by, with people riding in the back, throwing their garbage into the street without ever braking.

"It does no good to call anybody," complains Rhodes, adding that the junk sometimes sits in the road for a month before city work crews finally haul it away. "Because it's this end of town, the city's all right with it looking like this."

While the East Side has more than its share of trash-filled alleys and littered lots, Springfield's enduring problem of illegal fly-dumping knows no geographic boundaries.

Neighborhood association leaders in higher-income neighborhoods such as Lake Springfield and Washington Park say they, too, struggle with illegal dumpers who seek to avoid the steep fees charged by local landfills.

A survey by Illinois Times last week discovered evidence of illegal dumping throughout Sangamon County, particularly on rural roads along Springfield's periphery.

There were, among other eyesores, large appliances, like dryers, beside streams on North Cantrell Creek and Irwin Bridge roads; bed coils and mattresses on Camp Cilca Road; a crushed chicken coop surrounded by trash bags on the northwest side of the airport; and old tires and a rusted microwave oven along streets leading north from the 183rd Air National Guard base.

"It's a huge problem that Springfield has," says Mayor Tim Davlin. "I don't have a solution yet, but we are working on it."

Davlin has been talking trash from the moment he was elected last year.

He discusses the issue on a weekly basis with department heads and key advisors; has met with each of the city's four independent residential waste hauling firms; and even hired an environmental consultant at a cost of $75 an hour to assist him.

Davlin says he will unveil a plan to curb incidents of illegal dumping and contribute to the overall cleanliness of the city before the end of the year.

What are his plans?

"Some things I can tell you, some things I can't tell you," he answers, coyly.

Ward 3 Ald. Frank Kunz, who lives on the East Side, says the city should get tough on illegal dumpers and residents who are not registered for trash collection.

"We need stronger penalties if we're going to get serious about this," Kunz says. "We need judges who will prosecute for fly-dumping; if people aren't paying for pick-up, slap an 'Occupancy Prohibited' sign on the house."

But Davlin disagrees, arguing that the problem is structural.

"We can go out everyday and fine people and write them up [for citations]," the mayor says. "But if we had a better system, we wouldn't have to."

In Chicago and its surrounding suburbs, as well as central Illinois cities like Bloomington, Normal, and Peoria, waste service is either contracted or provided by the city.

But for the last half-century, Springfield has had a privatized system of garbage collection, in which residents can select from several local waste hauling companies.

All households must contract for waste service, according to city ordinance, though city officials say they have no means to track scofflaws.

The number of Springfield households who are not contracted with a waste hauler remains in dispute.

The University of Illinois at Springfield in 1998 received a federal grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development to study the trash issue in conjunction with The Springfield Project, a community non-profit organization.

According to UIS professor Dr. Larry Golden, it was discovered that as much as 15 percent of Springfield residences lacked trash removal service.

In 2001, a Waste and Recycling Task Force assembled by then-Mayor Karen Hasara reported, similarly, that 1,500 to 1,700 homes were without service.

But Kunz rejects these figures, as does Wynne Coplea, director of the city's Office of Public Works. Coplea estimates just 3 to 6 percent of households are non-compliant.

Regardless, these are the likely culprits for much of the city's illegal dumping, which poses problems that go way beyond undermining the mayor's recently announced efforts to beautify the city by planting wildflowers.

Fly-dumping often leads to health and environmental hazards like rodent infestation and breeding pools for mosquitoes, according to Ray Cooke, director of the city's Department of Public Health.

"Low-income families tend to pay for more vital services first," says Cooke, sympathizing. "Electricity, water, and groceries come first, often leaving garbage last on their lists."

Davlin's mantra, when discussing the trash issue, has been, "Any and all suggestions are on the table."

But that may not be entirely true.

For instance, one recommendation made by Hasara's task force was to include the fee for garbage pick-up on a household's water bill.

While the mayor says this remains an option, it is unlikely as he insists the city "has too many budgetary constraints to pay for the new technology" that would be needed.

Davlin says he may also sector off the city, enabling trash haulers to competitively bid on different areas perhaps on a ward-by-ward basis.

This could solve the inefficiency, not to mention nuisance, of trucks from different waste companies traveling to different houses on the same block.

Davlin concedes that would undercut the current competitive system, which, in theory, keeps costs down and allows households to pick the hauler of their choice.

In a State Journal-Register article, published April 4, Davlin said he would even consider "giving [garbage pickup] to one company."

But the mayor told IT, in no uncertain terms, "We're talking about people's livelihoods here. I won't give all the business to one hauler."

Davlin's hired environmental consultant, Walter Willis, proved more willing to discuss the specifics of the city's goals.

Willis began his career 18 years ago in the solid waste management section of the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, and currently works as a senior planner for engineering company Shaw EMCON/OWT, Inc.

Reached at his office in St. Charles, Ill., Willis said the city may not make any dramatic policy changes.

Instead, Willis said the mayor has been engaged in private negotiations with the Sangamon County Board, as well as Allied Waste Industries, which operates the Sangamon Valley landfill.

"We're hopeful that [Allied Waste] will provide [Springfield] residents with several thousand tons a year of free trash disposal," Willis says.

"That's the short-term goal, and could be the only changes implemented. It's the free disposal angle that we're going for."

Representatives of some community groups say they haven't been included in the mayor's negotiations, but that's okay -- for now.

"This has been an ongoing issue for so long," says David Welch, of the grassroots group Unity for the Community. "We're just thrilled the mayor is working hard to do something about it."

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