• Alex Nitkin
    OCT 05, 2021

    BACP, Streets & San primed for marathon hearings amid frustration over tree-trimming, vacant lots

    Leaders of the Chicago Department of Streets and Sanitation are primed to field a barrage of questions and complaints from members of the City Council on Tuesday. [Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago]

    Departmental budget hearings are set to push forward on Tuesday as aldermen interrogate leaders of the Chicago Department of Buildings, Departments of Streets and Sanitation and Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection. The departments represent three of the most public-facing corners of city government and rely on tight relationships with ward offices, promising hours of rigorous questioning by the City Council.

    The Department of Streets and Sanitation in particular usually undergoes one of the longest hearings each year, as aldermen spotlight the cleanliness and quality-of-life issues facing their own wards. And aldermen this year have already signaled they’re eager for answers on the department’s tree-trimming backlogs, planting programs, vacant lot maintenance and more.

    Department of Buildings

    Chicago Department of Buildings Comm. Matt Beaudet will come prepared to face questions on Tuesday over a barrage of new rules, processes and programs put in place during the past year in various efforts to update and streamline the city’s building safety regulations. 

    The city is in the middle of a long-running series of updates to its mammoth building code, including an overhaul of permitting processes and building code requirements approved in 2019. The department took the next step in the process last month, when the City Council approved a 65-page list of tweaks (O2021-3239) to the city’s rules governing ventilation, piping, heating, refrigeration and appliances. It was designed as a stopgap measure while the buildings department puts together a “stakeholder advisory group” to pitch more permanent changes.

    The City Council this year passed an ordinance (O2021-1193) to crack down on problem property owners by expanding the reach of the city’s Building Code Scofflaw Ordinance. Aldermen in April pressed city information technology officials on whether the department would be able to upgrade its software in time to handle the undertaking.

    Related: Crackdown on scofflaw building owners advances as aldermen press officials over tech upgrades

    And buildings officials have called to make permanent the city’s Alternative Plumbing Materials Pilot Program, which allowed developers of some buildings to apply for the right to use Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) pipes as opposed to copper or cast-iron pipes. The pilot expired on Sept. 1.

    Related: Buildings officials, developers push to loosen plumbing regulations as union resists

    Despite the rush of changes, the buildings department will see only a nominal uptick in spending under Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s 2022 proposal. The department is in line for a boost of about $1 million and five additional full-time employees, bringing its budget to about $34.4 million and 265 worker slots. 

    The increase only stands to claw back a fraction of the $3.7 million and 24 vacant positions that were slashed from the department in its 2021 budget.

    Streets and Sanitation

    One of the city’s largest departments, Streets and Sanitation is set to see a budget boost of about $24 million next year, bringing its total spending allocation past $307 million. Most of the increase will pad the department’s Bureau of Sanitation, which is set to add 51 new full-time equivalent employee positions next year.

    Aldermen signaled during last week’s hearing with the Department of Assets, Information and Services that they would come prepared on Tuesday with complaints about unkempt, overgrown vacant lots that have been overlooked by city maintenance workers. The assets department is responsible for maintaining vacant city-owned buildings, while streets and sanitation is in charge of moving and cleaning empty city-owned lots.

    Aldermen have also been vocal in their frustration with the department’s tree-trimming services, saying requests can be backlogged by up to a year before city forestry workers tend to them.

    Ald. Greg Mitchell (7) introduced an ordinance (O2021-4125) last month to crack down on illegal weeds in vacant lots by lowering the required threshold for removal to six inches, down from the existing 10 inches. Mitchell also introduced an ordinance (O2021-4124) that would require city forestry officials to remove “damaged, diseased or dangerous” trees upon the request of aldermen or their ward superintendents.

    Lightfoot has called as part of her Chicago Recovery Plan to set aside $46 million in federal American Rescue Plan dollars for the city to add 15,000 trees annually and create jobs for tree planting and maintenance.

    Leaders of the city’s Bureau of Forestry, a division of streets and sanitation, have told aldermen during the past year that forestry workers are removing trees faster than they can be planted, due in part a lack in funding and a shortage of employees.

    While Lightfoot’s proposed 2022 spending plan increases from $18.5 million to $20.5 million the Corporate Fund money allocated to forestry bureau, it cuts the bureau’s number of full-time positions from 200 to 192.

    Conservationists raised concerns last month over who would plant the trees and who would be responsible for maintaining them.

    Related: Lightfoot says neighborhoods 'desperately need’ her plan for 75K new trees — but keeping them alive is just as hard, conservationists say.

    Tuesday will mark the first budget hearing helmed by Comm. Cole Stallard, who took over as head of the department this summer following the retirement of John Tully.

    The hearing will come months after Inspector General Joseph Ferguson pushed to change city rules so that aldermen are no longer allowed to directly hire the ward superintendents who oversee streets and sanitation operations on their own turf. Aldermen resisted, and Lightfoot backed them up, arguing the position is senior enough to be exempt from the city’s rigid Shakman Decree hiring rules.

    Related: City moves to strip aldermen’s powers to pick ward superintendents, setting up City Council clash

    Business Affairs and Consumer Protection

    The COVID-19 pandemic amplified the role of the Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection last year, as the city worked to simultaneously keep struggling businesses alive while cracking down on bars and restaurants that flouted masking or distancing rules.

    The department has since lost long-time Comm. Rosa Escareño, who stepped down from the role earlier this year. Department First Deputy Comm. Kenneth Meyer, who has served as acting commissioner since August, is in line to represent the department and its nearly 200 staffers during Tuesday’s hearing.

    Lightfoot’s proposal puts the department in line for about a 1 percent spending increase and 13 additional full-time employee slots next year, bringing the position headcount to 197. The increase still does not bring the department back to its pre-pandemic strength; it was allocated 201 employee slots in the 2020 budget plan.

    Related: Business Affairs commissioner vows to ‘do more with less’ among shrinking budget for investigators

    The department’s responsibilities and relationship with the City Council are set to evolve during the course of the next year as various provisions of Lightfoot’s “Chi Biz Strong” ordinance (O2021-2183) go into effect. Among dozens of other business deregulation measures, the ordinance sets Jan. 1 as the deadline for the department to begin approving “public way use” permit applications itself instead of relying on the City Council for each approval. Following pushback from the council, the department will be required to score approval from each local aldermen before stamping a permit.


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