Illinois Public Media News
Champaign's Mayor wants to know more about nearly $50-million in unrestricted funds in the city's budget plan before signing off on one for the next fiscal year.
Don Gerard said the budget line item of $47-million is earmarked for specific public works projects, as well as the city's parking and vehicle funds. But in a year where emergency services are among the possible cuts, Gerard said he wants specifics.
"I heard a lot of people say 'I'm not comfortable with borrowing money, or 'I'm not comfortable with refinancing our pension bonds," he said. "Well, I'm not comfortable with having 47-million dollars unaccounted for and us cutting urban renewal programs. Nor am I comfortable as a taxpayer, as a man with children, in cutting any services relating to our first responders, including the front desk at the police station and browning out a fire station."
Gerard said he expects to have the information on what the funds are allocated for by next Tuesday's full council meeting on May 17th.
The Reverend Eugene Barnes was among members of the public concerned about the city's proposal to transfer $250,000 in reserves from Champaign's urban renewal fund. He said that would impact redevelopment in the Bristol Park neighborhood. Urban renewal makes up part of $2.75 million in one-time transfers from reserve funds in the budget proposal.
The lengthy budget presentation at Tuesday night's study session also included more than $600,000 in reductions, brought on largely through city employees taking a voluntary separation package. City Manager Steve Carter said impacted departments include public works and building safety.
A few city council members also suggest implementing a package liquor tax to bring in some revenue. Council member Karen Foster suggests the city needs the revenue from a liquor tax, saying it would 'equal out the playing field' with the local food and beverage tax. Council member Tom Bruno agrees it is worth a look.
"If we can gauge what the impact of it would be," he said. "And also if we can take into consideration whether or not we will be particularly causing harm to Champaign businesses because of the possibility - and maybe it's only a possibility - that consumers will change their buying habits."
City Finance Director Richard Schnuer said the idea would mean a lot of work for his department, but his staff already collects Champaign's food and beverage, and hotel-motel taxes. The city council expects to sign off on a budget plan by June 21st.
Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels signed a measure Tuesday imposing some of the nation's tightest restrictions on abortions and making Indiana the first state to cut off funding to Planned Parenthood.
Planned Parenthood of Indiana immediately went to court in an effort to stop the law. U.S. District Judge Tanya Walton Pratt is expected to rule Wednesday on the request.
Daniels, a Republican known as a fiscal hawk, is considering a run for president in 2012. Adding his signature to the abortion bill will likely help his image among social conservatives who were upset over Daniels' previous calls for a Republican "truce" on social issues.
Daniels didn't advocate publicly for the bill, and it wasn't part of his legislative agenda. But he said he supported the abortion restrictions from the outset and that the provision added to defund abortion providers did not change his mind.
He signed the bill into law Tuesday along with 79 other bills. The law cuts off about $3 million in public funds used to pay for services such as birth control, cancer screening and tests for sexually transmitted diseases.
Planned Parenthood says the measure is unconstitutional and violates federal law. It says 22,000 patients could be left without access to Pap tests and other non-abortion services.
While the law cuts off the stream of funding for Planned Parenthood immediately, organization President Betty Cockrum said its offices would open Wednesday to see scheduled patients. Cockrum said the organization will use its Women's Health Fund to cover the cost of patients who rely on federal funding for birth control or health exams.
"It's very bad for the state of Indiana," Cockrum said of the law. "It's a very bad direction for public health policy."
The American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana filed the request for an injunction and temporary restraining order on behalf of Planned Parenthood of Indiana. ACLU of Indiana Legal Director Ken Falk said the judge heard arguments from both sides on the temporary restraining order seeking to prevent the defunding the state's 27 Planned Parenthood locations. He said the public funding has nothing to do with abortion and is used to provide necessary medical services, primarily to women.
"Family planning dollars fund preventive health services that are critical to low-income and vulnerable women and their families," Falk said. "It is unlawful, unnecessary and cruel to deny these populations health services that they desperately need."
Cockrum and Falk declined to comment on how long Planned Parenthood would be able to continue seeing patients if the judge does not rule in their favor.
"I think we'll have to wait and see what happens tomorrow," Falk said.
Indiana Right to Life President Mike Fichter said Planned Parenthood was trying to use a "delay tactic" to keep public funding coming as long as possible. He said he was confident the law would stand.
"Governor Daniels has now established Indiana as one of the leading pro-life states in the nation," he said in a statement Tuesday.
The law puts Indiana at risk of losing $4 million a year in federal family planning grants. It also bans abortions after the 20th week of pregnancy unless there is a substantial threat to the woman's life or health. That's four weeks less than previously allowed.
Daniels says he'll decide soon whether to seek the GOP nomination. Republican supporters say his support for the abortion bill will trump any concerns social conservatives had over the truce on social issues.
The University of Illinois' Board of Trustees hasn't met on its flagship campus since late September.
And there's not another meeting scheduled in Urbana until December. U of I spokesman Tom Hardy says the Trustees' schedule this year represents a bit of an anomaly. He says the rule of thumb is that Trustees will meet two to three times in both Urbana and Chicago over the course of a year, along with one meeting on the Springfield campus.
But Hardy says accessibility of space has kept the Trustees from their Urbana meetings in the Illini Union the past few months. And he says there's the availability of the trustees themselves to consider.
"Six of the statewide appointed trustees hail from the greater Chicago area, and the other three are from areas outside of the Chicago area," said Hardy. "Every one of them is a professional or executive who have very busy schedules."
Two months ago, Hardy says one meeting was moved from Urbana to Springfield in an effort to be there at the time the legislature was in session. But lawmakers ended up taking that week off. U of I Trustees will meet on the Chicago campus on June 9th. The next Trustees meeting in Urbana is slated for December 2nd.
As the Champaign school district gets ready for another year of reduced spending, it has an agreement with teachers to continue another year on their old contract.
The Unit Four School Board approved a one-year contract extension with the Champaign Federation of Teachers Monday night. Teachers had voted to ratify the extension the week before. The new agreement takes effect June 30th.
Unit Four spokesperson Beth Shepperd said extending the terms of the current contract one more year was the realistic approach to financial problems that led the school board to cut spending in next year's budget by about $1.5 million. She called the agreement "a response to current financial situations and uncertainty at the state level."
Shepperd said the contract keeps teachers' salaries steady ---- with no raises except those on the step pay salary schedule.
"The salary schedule is structured so that a teacher moves up with a year's experience," Shepperd said. "They will get that upward movement. But there will be no increase to the overall salary schedule."
The extension also adds another $50 to the district's annual contribution for each teacher's Health Savings Account, for a total of $300.
A Unit Four news release quotes Champaign Federation of Teachers Deb Foertsch as saying she is satisfied with the agreement --- and looks forward to working with district officials for a longer term agreement in 2012.
Shepperd would not make a prediction on whether the school district's finances will have recovered enough by then to allow for a more generous contract.
University of Illinois President Michael Hogan says faculty could receive their first pay raise in three years this summer if current state budget proposals become reality.
Hogan told The News-Gazette newspaper in Champaign on Monday that faculty on campuses in Urbana-Champaign, Springfield and Chicago could see raises of less than 4 percent.
That figure is based on current funding proposals that would see the university's state appropriation either remain flat as Gov. Pat Quinn has proposed or be cut by up to 3 percent. The Illinois House and Senate have proposed cuts of 1.1 to 3 percent for the state's public universities.
Hogan said he's concerned by the exit of some key faculty members over the past few years.
State Farm Insurance says it will close two-dozen field offices over the next year in three states, including one in Champaign on West Park Court that employs 20 people.
It is part of an effort to save the company $8 million over the next five years. State Farm did a year-long study leading up to the consolidation plan, and found it could save money by centralizing technology while remaining efficient.
State Farm spokeswoman Missy Lundberg said administrative staff will consolidate to Indianapolis, but she said most employees will not be affected.
"A lot of those 13 hundred employees are what we call mobile claim workers, and they will be staying in those communities," she said. "What that means is that they will maybe work out of their home, maybe work out of a car, maybe work out of an agent's office."
The Bloomington-based company says it hopes to retain all the affected employees.
In addition to the State Farm office in Champaign closing, Illinois branches affected by the consolidation are in Marion, Collinsville, Springfield, Peoria, Moline, Rockford, Elmhurst, Tinley Park, and Arlington Heights.
Offices in Michigan and Indiana will also close.
A man accused of plotting to blow up a federal courthouse in Springfield has pleaded guilty.
Michael C. Finton was immediately sentenced today to serve 28 years in prison.
Finton, who is also known as "Talib Islam," was arrested in September 2009. Authorities said he repeatedly met with an undercover government operative he thought was a member of Al Qaida.
Finton parked a van loaded with fake explosives outside the federal courthouse and then made a cell phone call that he thought would trigger an explosion.
Urbana City Council members will get their first look at their May 16th meeting at a $48.3 million budget plan for the fiscal year starting July 1st.
At a news conference the previous Monday, Mayor Laurel Prussing says spending in her F-Y 2012 budget is nearly 5% greater than in the current year.
Urbana is seeing a slow recovery in sales and property tax revenues, plus money from state highway grants and the new tax on motor fuel, but Prussing said her budget would also dip further into the city's General Reserve Fund. The mayor says that fund should ideally be kept at around $3 million, but the 2012 budget plan would bring it down below $100,000 by next summer.
"The problem is that the revenues are not as great as of the expenditures," Prussing said. "So that's why we had to use our reserves. Obviously you can't do that forever. But I think that's what you use your reserves for, when you're going through a drop in your revenues, and you need to maintain your services."
City Comptroller Ron Eldridge said part of the challenge is that Urbana's modest growth in tax revenues doesn't compare to the drop in revenues it saw with the onset of the recession three years ago.
"Our revenue (growth) is in pretty much what I would call our normal trend, in that 3-4% range," Eldridge said. "The difficulty is that the hole was so deep that ... our revenues fell back to the level they were four to five years ago. We have such a large hole to dig our way out of it, it's going to be difficult to dig our way out of that at 3-4% a year, even though those are normal revenues."
Mayor Prussing said she wants to avoid laying off city staff. To do that, 11 vacant positions would not be filled next year under the budget plan, and wages and salaries would be frozen --- although a police contract is still being negotiated. Urbana's two big road projects for next year would be improvements to Airport Road east of Cunningham ... and Philo Road south of Windsor. The city would also borrow money to make improvements to Boneyard Creek in downtown Urbana.
The Urbana City Council will hold study sessions on the proposed budget on two Mondays, May 16th and May 23rd. A public hearing on the Urbana city budget is scheduled for Monday, June 6th in City Council chambers.
Mayor Prussing said she is also seeking questions or comments on the budget via email at email@example.com; via phone at 217-384-2456 and by mail at 400 S. Vince Street, Urbana IL 61801.
CORRECTION: This story originally stated that the budget would be presented at the Monday, May 9th Urbana City Council study session. Instead, the presentation will be made on May 16th.
(With additional reporting from The Associated Press)
The U.S. Department of Transportation announced Monday that it's giving Amtrak $404 million to expand high-speed rail service in the Midwest.
The money will go toward making upgrades along the Chicago-St. Louis corridor and to constructing new segments of 110 mph track between Chicago and Detroit.
Once completed, the two projects are expected to reduce travel times and improve safety.
The Chicago-to-Detroit enhancements are expected to shave 30 minutes off of passenger travel times between the two destinations, and the government claims the construction phase of the project will create 1,000 jobs.
The money was part of $2 billion originally earmarked for high-speed rail links between Tampa and Orlando, Florida.
But Florida Governor Rick Scott canceled the project earlier this year, making the money available to be used in other parts of the nation.
The Department of Transportation targeted rail projects in 15 states to receive the additional funds. 24 states, the District of Columbia and Amtrak had all applied for the dollars.
The largest share of the money - nearly $800 million - will be used to upgrade train speeds from 135 mph to 160 mph on critical segments of the heavily traveled Northeast corridor.
"The investments we're making today will help states across the country create jobs, spur economic development and boost manufacturing in their communities," said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.
Advocates of high-speed rail are scheduled to go to the Illinois State Capitol in Springfield on May 19th to lobby state officials to support enhanced passenger rail service in the state.
This morning defense attorneys for Rod Blagojevich are expected to cross examine the first major witness in the former governor's retrial.
John Harris was Blagojevich's chief of staff and he spent three days on the stand last week testifying for prosecutors. He was caught on federal wiretaps advising Blagojevich on how to use a senate seat appointment to enrich himself.
Harris hoped Blagojevich could become a member of Obama's cabinet and in exchange Blagojevich would appoint anyone to the Senate that Obama wanted.
Harris is caught on one phone call talking to another Blagojevich adviser about their attempts to get that offer to Obama's people.
"We wanted our ask to be reasonable and rather than make it look like some sort of selfish grab for a quid pro quo," Harris said. "We had to lay the groundwork to show that we're going to be stuck in the mud here."
Harris was an attorney and he has pleaded guilty in the case and is cooperating with prosecutors.
In their cross examination, Blagojevich's defense team could point out that Harris came up with many of the illegal schemes himself but that would be an admission that the schemes were indeed illegal. Instead they will probably focus on the idea that it was all just talk and no crimes were ever committed.
(Photo by Robert Wildeboer/IPR)
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