Illinois Public Media News
With a 95-million dollar deficit to deal with, the Chicago Transit Authority has sought a cutback in mandatory free rides for seniors. But it's a less urgent matter for two transit agencies in east central Illinois.
Danville Mass Transit allowed seniors to ride for half-price until 2008, when the state required all mass transit agencies in Illinois to let everyone over 65 ride for free.
DMT Director Richard Brazda says they adjusted to the 100 percent discount, thanks to an increase in state funding.
"So at the time that was added, there was also an increase in funding that was provided for the various downstate operators", says Brazda. "So I guess it was felt that there wasn't an issue there, because they were getting additional funding, and therefore the loss of revenue was not significant."
The Illinois House Mass Transit Committee voted 20 to 4 on Thursday to approve a measure (HB 4654) limiting the free-ride mandate to low-income seniors enrolled in the state's Circuit-Breaker program. Brazda says if the measure becomes law, it's up to the Danville City Council to decide if Danville Mass Transit should follow suit.
Meanwhile, a spokesman for the Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District says he expects their free-ride policy to remain, no matter what lawmakers do. Tom Costello says the CU-MTD started granting free rides for all seniors and people with disabilities about 7 years ago, before the state mandate took effect.
"We certainly had our plan in place before the state made this move" says Costello, "and we see no reason to change the plan subsequent to the state deciding what they're going to do. Our plan was in effect without regard to what the state plan was."
Costello says they've budgeted for the free rides --- which serve as an alternative to more expensive point-to-point service, which the CU-MTD also provides to seniors and people with disabilities.
Illinois Public Media announced staff cuts and programming changes for WILL Radio and TV Thursday, including the elimination of its weather department.
Illinois Public Media General Manager Mark Leonard says the layoffs and programming changes come in response to continued cuts in Illinois Arts Council funding, one of the main sources of government funding for WILL --- which also receives funding from underwriters, grants, and donations from listeners and viewers.
Leonard says the decision to eliminate the weather department was one of the hardest ones to make, given the long tradition of weather programming at WILL. The department, featuring Mike Sola and meteorologist Ed Kieser, provides regular weather forecasts for WILL Radio and TV and the WILL website. But Leonard says some sort of programming cutback was unavoidable.
"We have taken all of the lesser, invisible cuts that we could make, and we are now longer able to absorb cuts in funding without it being visible to our listeners", said Leonard. "And our weather service is something that WILL has to underwrite at a cost of $100,000 per year --- funds that we no longer have."
Leonard says Illinois Arts Council funding for WILL has been cut nearly 300-thousand dollars since 2006 --- including a 110-thousand dollar reduction this fiscal year. In addition, the WILL has not yet received any of its promised funding for this year. Leonard says he hopes there will be no more cuts in Arts Council funding next year. But he says, "if we see an additional cut or elimination of that funding, it may be necessary to make additional cuts."
In other changes, NPR's flagship news programs, "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered", will begin running on WILL-FM as well as WILL-AM, beginning in April. Leonard says the move will bring the programs to an audience west of Champaign-Urbana, where the WILL-AM signal is weak. WILL-FM is also dropping jazz, folk and programming from its weekend schedule, in favor of more classical music --- although Garrison Keillor's "A Prairie Home Companion" will remain.
Leonard says he expects there to be criticism of the changes from WILL's listeners and viewers, and perhaps a drop in contributions..
"We understand that any sort of programming change of this magnitude is going to cause some listeners to object", says Leonard, "and we that some people will, perhaps, want to withhold their membership contributions. We're asking for them to be patient, to listen to the new services. And we hope that they'll understand that WILL is making a careful investment of their membership dollars and will continue to do that."
Besides the phasing out of the weather department, the layoffs include staff in radio programming and operations, the art department and TV production.
At the same time, Illinois Public Media will add three new staff positions, including one person to be the local host of "Morning Edition" on WILL, another to work on content for the stations' website, and a third position in the Development Department.
Leonard will discuss the staff layoffs and program changes at WILL on WILL-AM''s "Focus 580" with David Inge. The interview airs live on Monday, February 15th at 11 AM CST, and will be archived on the WILL website.
The St. Louis Post Dispatch is reporting that the head of an Urbana company plans to buy the majority share of the St. Louis Rams.
Shahid Khan is the president of auto parts maker Flex-n-Gate and a University of Illinois engineering graduate. The newspaper quotes several NFL sources saying current Rams majority owners Chip Rosenbloom and Lucia Rodriguez, the children of former owner Georgia Frontiere, plan to sell their 60 percent interest to Khan. The remainder of the football franchise is owned by Stan Kroenke. The newspaper's sources say Khan intends to keep the Rams in St. Louis.
Illinois Democrats say Gov. Pat Quinn should have more time to assemble a state budget and the public should have a bigger say in how it's put together.
The Senate adopted a plan that delays Quinn's budget address three weeks ... to March 10.
But the Democrat must post on a website details of what revenues he expects and what spending obligations the state has in the budget year that begins July 1. The public then may comment and make suggestions.
The Senate vote was 31-21. Among East-Central Illinois senators, Democrat Mike Frerichs voted for the measure, and Republican Dan Rutherford of Pontiac voted against it. Republican Dale Righter of Mattoon did not vote. The legislation moves to the House.
Republicans complained that delaying a budget address with a deficit of $11 billion or more will shorten time available to fill it.
The bill number is HB2240.
Sony's purchase of a Champaign-based medical technology company will allow it to use lasers for more than consumer electronics.
iCyt is located in the University of Illinois' Research Park. Its flow cytometry machines count, examine, and sort cells, doing research as well as testing for diseases like AIDS and various cancers. The machine uses a laser that shines onto cells, optics that collect the light from them, and computers that process the information. iCYT founder and CEO Gary Durack says that laser technology isn't far removed from what Sony does with a CD or DVD player. He says Sony plans on keeping ICyt in Champaign, adding that's important while so many seek help from Springfield or Washington, DC to solve our economic problems.
"We can help build businesses here, we can create jobs here, we can work to make the University of Illinois the greatest research institution in the United States, and recognized for that," says Durack. "We can get on board with all kinds of things in this community to get together to build it." ICyt has 44 full-time employees, but Durack expects that number to grow soon. Financial terms of Sony's purchase of the company weren't disclosed.
Former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich is heading to court to answer revised charges that he schemed to sell or trade President Barack Obama's old Senate seat and swap official favors for campaign money.
Marshals have warned they will not tolerate the kind of swirling crowd at Blagojevich's arraignment Wednesday that swallowed the former governor last time he was in court.
Curiosity about Blagojevich is guaranteed to bring out a heavy media contingent, but defense attorney Sheldon Sorosky says the arraignment is likely to be routine - a simple not guilty plea.
While the indictment against Blagojevich has been revised, the allegations of misconduct on his part are no different that the ones in the old version.
A small pre-dawn earthquake has hit northern Illinois, startling sleepy-eyed residents as far away as Iowa and Indiana, but no damage or injuries were immediately reported.
The U.S. Geological Survey reports that the 4.3-magnitude earthquake hit about 50 miles northwest of Chicago at 4 a.m. Wednesday.
USGS geophysicist Amy Vaughan says such quakes are rare in northern Illinois. She says the agency received reports from Wisconsin, Iowa and Indiana about feeling the ground shake.
Sheriff's dispatchers near the epicenter in Kane County say they've been flooded with calls from startled residents. But spokesman Lt. Pat Gengler says no injuries or damage have been reported.
Residents reported being tossed out of bed and finding books and tools scattered across the floor.
The Vermilion County Health Department will continue operations for at least another three months. The Vermilion County Board voted 22 to 1 Tuesday night to extend a loan to the health department, in lieu of overdue state funding.
County Board Chairman Jim McMahon says the extension will let the Vermilion County Health Department continue until May --- but with fewer services. That's because county board members also voted 22-1 to formalize more than 400-thousand dollars in budget cuts, eliminating three state grant-funded programs, and cutting 12 jobs. McMahon says a proposal to cut the remaining grant-funded programs from the budget did not come up last night. But he says if the state of Illinois hasn't paid up some of the money it owes the health department by spring, it will be harder to get the county board to continue the loan without cutting even more from the health department's budget..
"It's a very strong possibility, that if the state of Illinois doesn't start paying the bills of this fiscal year", says McMahon, that 53 employees will be let go in an Aprikl or May decision".
McMahon says that would leave about 20 employees to run basic health services --- restaurant inspections, disease control, and water safety. He says he would never allow the Vermilion County Health Department to be eliminated entirely.
McMahon says the the only solution he can see is for the state to borrow money so it can start paying out the grant money it agreed to.
"It's not fair for producers of programs from the state to have to basically borrow money to continue going", says McMahon. He says Governor Pat Quinn should borrow the money "to cover the expense that the state of Illinois has already approved.
Leaders of Illinois' public universities are making a unified appeal for the money the state government owes them.
Illinois has been trying to deal with a deep budget deficit by putting off payments to creditors - including nearly three quarters of a billion dollars to higher education.
University of Illinois interim president Stan Ikenberry says his institution is 431 million dollars in debt because of the lack of payments, and leaders owe it to the people of Illinois to find a solution. He says that solution will include painful budget cuts.
"And it's going to require revenue increases. Very unpleasant, very difficult for any public leader lawmakers to think about," Ikenberry said. "But I think both cuts in expenditure and revenue increases will be essential before any solution can be brought about. The third essential element will be some strong leadership and bipartisan cooperation."
Ikenberry says the financial crisis is not a total surprise because the state's fiscal situation has been in decline for nearly eight years, but he's surprised that's it's gotten as bad as it has.
Several other university leaders joined Ikenberry at a Chicago press conference to call for the state money to be released.
The Champaign School Board looked at additional options Monday night, as it considered making $2.2 billion in budget cuts. But some of the proposals unveiled two weeks ago are already drawing fire.
Proposals to lay off two elementary school band and strings teachers --- and perhaps cut the 4th grade program entirely --- brought a group of music supporters to the meeting. They included Edison Middle School 7th grader William Smith, who says his school's band is as strong as it is, because many members started their band practice in elementary school.
"I'm a tuba player, and Band is one of the favorite things I do", Smith told the school board. "And I can guarantee you that I wouldn't be in it today, if it wasn't for the Fifth Grade (band) program."
School Board President Dave Tomlinson says he received 15-hundred emails defending the elementary school band and strings program, and he did not support making any cuts.
"Dave Tomlinson's not going to vote for a cut in Band and Strings", Tomlinson told reporters. "I will support a reorganization, because I think there's some areas to do that in."
In particular, Tomlinson pointed to some elementary schools in the district, where Band or Strings enrollment was in the low single digits. He said instruction for students at those schools might be combined together.
Unit Four Finance Director Gene Logas presented nearly $2-million in additional proposed budget cuts and revenue enhancements last night --- giving the school board more options to choose from, on top of the $2.2 billion proposed two weeks ago. The new proposals include additional administrative cuts, and the elimination next year of an annual professional conference for school board members.
A public meeting on the proposed Unit Four budget cuts is set for Thursday, February 18th at a site to be announced --- Tomlinson says it will probably be held at a school gymnasium, in order to accommodate a large crowd.. The Unit Four School Board's final vote on budget cuts is set for March 8th.
In other action, the school board approved a $228,000 restructuring plan for Centennial High School. The school will get a new principal, and enact several reforms in an effort to meet learning standards under No Child Left Behind. Board members initially rejected the plan on a 4 to 3 vote. It finally passed 5 to 2, after the cost of the program was capped at $200,000. Board members said it wasn't right to spend so much on the restructuring plan --- including money for new staff positions --- when money was being cut elsewhere due to a lack of funds.
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