Berwyn residents demand rat abatement at town hall

There are no clear solutions but a number of clear problems causing rats to settle in Berwyn.

The COVID-19 pandemic, blight, underground infrastructure ruptures and repairs, defective garbage cans, absentee landlords, pet feces left to molder and a lack of follow-through to 2018 recommendations for vermin abatement from the now inactive Ad Hoc Rat Abatement Committee.

These reasons were cited by residents and rat abatement experts during a recent two-hour virtual town hall meeting on rat abatement attended by about 50 Berwyn residents.

Fifth Ward Alderman Robert Pabon invited the mayor, the city council and representatives from Berwyn Township and the Berwyn Public Health District to the town hall. All but Alderman Joseph Carmichael (8th Ward) and Alderwoman Mary Beth Arenella (7th Ward) declined to attend.

The city’s homepage did add a new feature within two days of Pabon calling the meeting: a form for residents to report blight.

The city has not followed through publicly on any of a series of recommendations made in November 2018 by the Ad Hoc Rat Abatement Committee. Former Alderman Jose Ramirez was a member of that committee.

“We made a number of recommendations. I don’t know that any came to fruition,” Ramirez said during the town hall. “The township can cite a restaurant for rodents, but it cannot ticket or fine them. There’s no teeth in the enforcement. That was one of the things we wanted to change. We wanted to be able to actually fine repeat offenders.”

Awesome Pest’s Joe Cherio is the city’s contracted exterminator for alleys. Cherio, a 31-year resident of Berwyn, said he has to contend with many issues as he and his four-person team work to keep the city’s 260-plus alleys vermin free.

The city contracted with Awesome Pests in January to do rat abatement daily, Cherio said. Previously, he said, the contract had been less frequent.

Cherio isn’t convinced Berwyn has more rats than in the past, but circumstances definitely have made them more visible.

“A lot of the infrastructure that’s getting done – fixing sewer pipes below ground – that’s disrupting them, making the rats do a lot more running around,” Cherio said.

Berwyn’s Public Works Department repaired five water main breaks between July 11 and July 28, according to Public Works Director Robert Schiller, who responded to a Freedom of Information Act request on the issue.

COVID-19 restrictions also forced the rats to adapt, Cherio said.

“When the businesses – restaurants – closed due to COVID, the rats moved into residential areas to find food,” he said.

Cherio has bait stations in “every single alley” in Berwyn, each one baited on a regular schedule: Roosevelt Road to 16th Street on the first week of each month; 16th Street to Cermak Road on the second week; Cermak Road to Windsor Avenue on the third week; and Windsor Avenue to 39th Street on the fourth week. Cherio, who has 40 years in the business, checks the bait stations daily. He also responds to complaints called into the city. The complaints are emailed to him.

Blight is an issue, he said, especially with absentee landlords who have to be tracked down before Awesome Pests can work on their property.

“The city’s been great about helping us track these people down so we can get permission,” Cherio said. “But that can take time.”

Residents pointed out during the town hall that rats mate up to four times a year, each litter adding up to a dozen hungry new critters.

Another issue cited repeatedly by residents and Cherio involved Waste Management, the city’s contracted garbage collector. Residents reported calling repeatedly for garbage can replacements after rodents chewed holes in the containers. Careless garbage disposal and overflowing containers were common sights in his alley, said 11-year-resident Rene Bernel, who said he had called Waste Management twice trying to get new garbage cans.

“People will literally throw crap in the alley. Where is the city’s intervention with this?” said Bernel, who criticized Pabon for not hosting the forum earlier. Pabon took office in May.

“Honestly, this call should have happened maybe six months ago,” Bernel said. “I’m surprised it’s taken this long. I know when you were campaigning you stood on my porch and the very first thing I said to you was, ‘Hey, I’m tired of these damn rats.’ So here we are after all these months?”

Thirty-year resident Sheila Bielecki expressed frustration with the Culver’s adjacent to her property and the garbage that has served as a rat welcome mat.

“I adore gardening, and my garden is beautiful, but I’m afraid if I stick my face down there I’m going to have a rat jump out at me,” Bielecki said. “My granddaughters want to play in the yard, but I don’t know if it’s safe because of the rats. People need to start being fined. Print up flyers, hand them out at Oktoberfest and every other community event the city sponsors. Whatever it takes.”

Tonya Hart, a 20-year resident, said she spent more than a year trying to get rat abatement help from the city.

“This is a baseline issue for me,” Hart said. “I’ve been paying taxes into the system for 20 years, and I think rat eradication, extermination is a basic service our taxes pay for. Our taxes just went up. Now not only do I have rats, I’m paying more for them.

“I called the city about this for over a year. I’m grateful for the attention I’ve now gotten on this issue. [Abatement] should be done equitably. It shouldn’t just be the squeakiest wheels that get results. I want to see citywide outreach on this problem. In Spanish and in English.”

Pabon wants more action and less reaction from the city.

“Nobody likes [rats],” Pabon said. “This is about finding an equitable, proactive solution and not just responding to whoever has the time and the resources to keep calling the city.”