Illinois Public Media News
A plan to fix a six million dollar shortfall in next year's Champaign City budget comes before the City Council next Tuesday.
City Manager Steve Carter is proposing a combination of spending cuts, budget transfers and fee increase to fill the budget gap. Mayor Jerry Schweighart says the fix is necessary, because current tax revenue isn't keeping up with Expenses.
"The sales tax, which goes into our General Fund, is way down," says Schweighart. "So that's hurt quite a bit. The other thing is unfunded mandates that the state keeps putting on us, in lieu of pensions and stuff. Most of our property tax goes for pensions".
A memo to city council members from City Manager Carter reports that the city sales tax is down 3.56% from a year ago. In addition, income tax revenue (the city's third largest revenue source) has fallen 8.79% from a year ago.
To fix the problem, City Manager Carter wants to cut 2 to 3 million dollars from the General Fund budget. He says that might mean police and other staff might take longer responding to low-priority calls. The General Fund would get an infusion of money from other city funds --- capital improvements would feel most of that impact. And the city would raise fees on liquor licenses, cable TV and other items that focus on specific users, not the general tax payer. Mayor Schweighart says that Champaign's liquor license and cable fees are substantially lower than Urbana's, and that the proposed increases are reasonable.
The city of Champaign will hold three public forums on the budget strategy. The first is scheduled for Saturday, March 14th, at 10 AM at the Douglass Branch Library. The 2nd is Monday, March 16th, at 7 PM at the Champaign Public Library. And the third is set for Tuesday, March 17th, at 2 PM at city council chamber. The Champaign City Council will discuss the budget proposal during a special study session Tuesday the 17th, following the 7 PM regular meeting.
Governor Pat Quinn says some Illinois residents will have a "higher tax burden'' when he announces his state budget plan next week to fix a deficit now estimated to be up to $11.5 billion.
But Quinn contends his income tax proposal would amount to a tax cut for millions of Illinoisans by increasing the personal exemption to let them shield more income from being taxed.
Quinn wouldn't give specific details Friday on the income rate or personal exemption levels he plans to propose. But he did give a hint about who would be affected by any tax increase. The governor says a family of four making less than about $57,000 a year won't see its taxes go up. The less money people make, he says, the more of a tax cut they'll see. Aides say Quinn will also propose about $850 million in new budget cuts.
Meanwhile, aides say the Illinois budget deficit is even worse than previously thought. Instead of $9 billion, they now estimate the gap at $11.5 billion. That's the combined total for this budget year and next, assuming revenues keep falling and expenses keep climbing.
Champaign County's business community wants to inject some optimism into an otherwise uncertain local economy.
Their method includes window decals, TV and radio ads, and bright green t-shirts saying "Save jobs, shop local, spend now." Dozens of county Chamber of Commerce members wore the shirts in kicking off the campaign this morning - Rantoul Chamber of Commerce director Chris Kaler says with a few businesses closing lately, local residents who can afford to, should buy items according to their current ability.
"If we don't stick together, if we don't shop local, if we don't spend responsibly, we're doing a tremendous disservice, Kaler said. "So what I'm asking people to do is get out of your bunker."
County Chamber president Laura Weis acknowledges that their campaign can do little more than boost morale, but the effort ought to make people think after hearing months of gloomy economic news.
"We don't want this to sound frivolous," Weis said. "We're not trying to tell people to go out and just blow your money. What we want people to do is to think about things they've made conscious choices about, things that were part of their life everyday that they've consciously decided to cut back on, and start to reincorporate that back in to your everyday activity."
Weis says businesses have lost revenue -- not just from skittish customers, but from internet sales going to other regions.
Illinois' version of a cola war ended when the state gave one company an exclusive contract at all state government buildings, including most University of Illinois facilities. But an audit finds problems with how Illinois chose Pepsi over Coke.
State representatives suspicious of the 2007 deal directed the state's Auditor General to investigate. His findings show those lawmakers had good reason to question the contract. Both Pepsi and Coca Cola submitted proposals to the state. A team was assembled to score each company following strict rules. Instead, some scores were lowered for no reason. And when Coke failed to meet a points threshold, the Blagojevich Administration kept it hidden for months. It wasn't until after Pepsi won the contract that Coke was notified there had been a problem.
Auditor General Bill Holland said the whole process, from the submission of proposals to the evaluation to the notification, was weak overall.
Holland says it's a process that should have been transparent. A spokeswoman for the Department of Revenue which oversaw the process says it was fair and a success ... as Pepsi will pay 64 million dollars over ten years for the exclusive right. At least one lawmaker says the state should seek new bids.
Coca-Cola has not returned calls for comment. But in newspaper reports from last March, when the Illinois House unanimously voted for the investigation, a Coke spokesman is quoted as saying "Illinois taxpayers were shortchanged.
University of Illinois students find themselves with a black hole in their budgeting plans for the year ahead - their tuition bills.
U of I officials are in the same situation, waiting for outside factors before determining how much money they have to raise from tuition and room and board in the next school year. Chief financial officer Walter Knorr says the first indication comes next Wednesday in Governor Pat Quinn's budget address.
"That will give us our first indication of where we are," said Knorr. "To some degree that starts the thinking of...what's in the realm of possibility as far as tuition. But before you firm that up, you have to go through the whole legislative process this spring and see if that's actually what comes out at the end of the session."
However, Knorr says the U of I is attempting to set tuition and fees at the next Board of Trustees meeting in May. They may be set even before the state budget is finalized - the university has waited as late as June to set tuition because of dragged-out budget negotiations in Springfield. Other public universities are waiting for word from the state before announcing their tuition rates too.
Gov. Pat Quinn has decided to keep the Pontiac Correctional Center open.
Quinn's decision today reverses ousted Gov. Rod Blagojevich's plan to close the 137-year-old prison. In a news release today, Quinn cited the need to save jobs. The prison is one of the Pontiac area's largest employers with more than 500 workers.
Last year, Blagojevich announced plans to close the prison and move many of its more than 1,500 inmates to the largely unused Thomson Correctional Center in western Illinois to save money. Lawmakers and others from the Pontiac area believed Blagojevich was using the decision to punish them for opposing his policies.
An attorney for a Chicago man who admitted killing a Douglas County deputy says he did so to avoid what might have been a lifetime alone in his cell.
William Thompson pleaded guilty to first-degree murder in a plea bargain yesterday in the June 2007 death of Douglas County Deputy Tommy Martin. The shooting happened during a crime spree that included a high-speed chase and stand-off at a bank in Arcola.
Attorney Jeff Justice says he advised Thompson to take the deal offered by prosecutors. Justice says a death sentence would likely mean decades on death row and 23 hours a day of isolation.
Douglas County Sheriff Charlie McGrew was a friend of the 59-year-old Martin. McGrew says he approves of the deal.
Thompson's co-defendant, Yusef Kareem Brown, has pleaded not guilty and awaits trial.
Ameren and Illinois EPA officials answered questions at an open house Wednesday about cleanup plans for a former manufactured gas plant on the east side of Champaign. Many of the questions came from people who don't think the cleanup goes far enough.
Beginning next month, Ameren plans to remove contaminated top-soil as deep as ten feet down from the former plant site at 5th and Hill Streets. Chemicals will be injected into the remaining soil and groundwater to break up toxins at deeper levels.A large tent and air handling equipment will keep dust and vapors from escaping into the surrounding neighborhood. The project will take about a year, and is designed to make the site safe for redevelopment.
But neighbors of the site, organized by Champaign County Healthcare Consumers, say they fear the cleanup process will miss contaminants that may have already been carried off site by groundwater to their properties, where it could seep into flood-prone basements.
70-year-old Ebbie Cook says he's lived near the old gas plant site all his life. He says he worries that toxic chemicals found in the coal tar left behind by the old gas plant could have direct effect on his family's health, and he'd like to see a more extensive cleanup. Cook says, "If it is contamination that's causing different types of illness, then my children and their children, if it's in their system, what could it cause?"
Cook was among those attending the open house at the Champaign City Building who said they noticed a persistent chemical smell when contractors hired by the city opened up pipes underneath Hill Street recently to do flood prevention work. In response, the Illinois EPA's Greg Dunn offered sump water inspections for any residents in the immediate area who wanted one.
"If you guys smell something, contact me", Dunn told the 5th and Hill neighbors. "Because we have an office in Champaign.I can have one of our inspectors come on over an kind of check it out."
Claudia Lennhoff of Champaign County Healthcare Consumers says the offer of home inspections was a welcome move. She also said that Illinois EPA officials had agreed to meet with the 5th and Hill neighborhood group to answer technical questions --- something they had refused to do before.
But Ameren and IEPA officials contend that the cleanup scheduled to start next month at the former plant site --- plus a very few neighboring properties --- is enough to make the area safe. They say soil and groundwater tests done at locations outside the former plant site have turned up contaminants in just a few areas --- and those areas will have cleanup work performed.
Before Governor Pat Quinn unveils his budget proposal next week, legislators and fiscal policy experts are weighing in with advice. Illinois has a historic budget deficit, and John Tillman, the head of the Illinois Policy Institute, says it ballooned to potentially 9 billion dollars because the governor and lawmakers lacked spending discipline. He says the gap was created before the economic downturn, when Illinois was bringing in record amounts of money in taxes and fees.
"There's no reason to add more revenues if you're already getting record rates of revenue in," Tillman said, meaning Illinois needs to make cuts. But Ralph Martire of the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability takes the opposite view.
"While that may sound logical," Martire said, "it is quite clearly the absolute worst thing the state of Illinois could do. In fact we have found that if the state were to cut spending and its budget deficit was as small as $4 billion, we would lose 56 thousand jobs."
Martire says Illinois should overcome the recession by raising taxes. Martire says Illinois can't just tax like it does now -- he advocates changing the tax code.
Even amid skepticism from some faculty members, the president of the University of Illinois says its Global Campus will pay for itself in two years and be an important part of the educational system. The online degree program was launched two years ago but attracted only about a dozen students at first. But president Joe White says enrollment has reached 400 students and is expected to pass 700 next year.
"We're on a plan for Global Campus to be at a financial break-even by 2011 with about 1500 students, and we're going to get there," White said.
White says the U of I is still committed to maintaining the health of its three existing brick and mortar campuses. But he says the university also has to extend its reach to people who may not have the time or money for a traditional degree. Today trustees were to approve an academic policy council to let faculty help oversee Global Campus.
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