Illinois Public Media News
The head of Illinois' child welfare agency is leaving after five years in that role.
Having served as Director of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services since 2006, Erwin McEwen released a statement saying he's ready for the next challenge.
It has been a tumultuous summer for the agency. DCFS has been involved in a high profile court fight with Catholic Charities after that group refused to recognize couples in civil unions when it comes to adoptions and foster care placements. However, DCFS spokesman Kendall Marlowe said that case had nothing to do with the Director's decision to leave.
"His decision is completely unrelated to the civil unions controversy or any other recent events," Marlowe said.
Marlowe said among McEwen's accomplishments include an increased capacity to serve more families on a voluntary basis, rather than waiting for the legal system to intervene.
DCFS now serves more families on a voluntary basis than on a court ordered one.
McEwen has not announced what he will be doing next. His resignation is effective Sept.30.
The oppressive heat that's blanketed parts of the region has prompted city officials in Decatur to ask residents to conserve their water use.
People living in the area have been advised to fix leaky faucets, wash only full loads of dishes and laundry and take shorter showers.
Lake Decatur is roughly 1.5 feet below its normal level and falling at a rate of half an inch a day. Residents make up less than a quarter of the lake's water consumption.
Water management director Keith Alexander said the city has started using water from a pit near the Lake Decatur dam, and he says it's possible it may have to also dip into the De Witt County well field. He said if that happens, customers would notice an increase in their utility bill.
"If we notice that these drought expenses are starting to inch up - if the drought continued - then we'd have to pass those costs onto our customers," Alexander said.
But Alexander said he is confident that a steady flow of rain will return, preventing any sort of dramatic change to the city's water supply.
"But we always have to plan for the worst case scenario when we enter these dry spells," he said. "So, at this point in time, we're asking for voluntary conversation. The next dramatic steps would be the potential for mandatory conservation."
The last time Decatur residents were required to conserve water was during a 2007 drought. For this year's heat-wave, Alexander cautions boaters using Lake Decatur to be careful of shallow areas, especially around docks and hoists.
A utility watchdog group believes it can gather enough opposition to turn Ameren's request for a rate hike into a rate cut.
The Citizens Utility Board is urging the public to submit comments against the utility's call for a 90-million dollar increase in delivery charges. Next week, the Illinois Commerce Commission conducts its only hearing on the request. It's scheduled for Tuesday in Springfield.
In Champaign Thursday, CUB Executive Director David Kolata noted that Ameren earned 650-million dollars in profits last year, and that they're up over 60-percent in Illinois alone.
"I think they have a hard time justifying a rate increase when our experts the Illinois Attorney General's office hired looked at this, they found that they couldn't justify it." he said. "Ameren has very clear that they're going to come in every year for five, six, seven, years in a row and try to raise rates. That's their business strategy."
Regulators reduced Ameren's original rate hike request from $111-million to $90-million.
Ameren spokesman Leigh Morris contends the rate hike request is needed for safe, reliable power delivery, and for higher operating costs. And he says delivery costs have skyrocketed, and that's solely what this rate hike is for.
"It's designed to allow us to recover our cost of providing safe and reliable service.." said Morris, "...and to earn a reasonable rate of return, which is necessary for any for-profit company, which Ameren is."
Morris says Illinois' corporate income tax increase has cost Ameren an additional $41-million dollars. Both CUB and the ICC are taking comments on the proposed rate hike.
CUB also used the Champaign news conference to oppose a measure that passed the legislature last spring that would allow for 'smart grid' investments for utilities. But Kolata says it would also make it easier for utilities to pass off rate increases. Speaking in Chicago Thursday, Governor Pat Quinn vowed to veto that measure, and for legislators make improvements to the bill this fall.
Two downstate state Senators are calling on Gov. Pat Quinn to improve staffing levels at state prisons.
Senators Shane Cultra (R-Onarga) and John O. Jones (R-Mount Vernon) say staff-to-inmate levels are at disturbing levels. For instance, they say the first shift inmate-to-guard ratio at the medium security Decatur state prison is around 12 to 1.
Jones said that might be acceptable, but not the 18-to-1 First Shift ratios at the Big Muddy River state prison. The figures come from the state Department of Corrections through a Freedom of Information Act request.
Senator Cultra said matters will only get worse, as nearly a thousand guards become eligible for retirement next year --- with no plans announced for new cadet training. The Onarga Republican said that is why they are trying to put pressure on Governor Quinn.
"Maybe it will move the administration to take some action," Cultra said. "We would like to work with the administration to help alleviate this. And we think by making it aware publically, that maybe it might push (him) into some action."
Cultra said he is worried about a high number of prison guards nearing retirement age --- when there might not be enough new guards to take their place.
"There's no cadet classes scheduled," he said. "This fiscal year, they have a potential of having 1,000 guards retire. There's nobody to replace these people. So the numbers that you're looking at now are terrible --- it's going to be much worse when these retirements come about."
Cultra and Jones say the state could afford more prison guards if they make cuts in less essential state programs, and sell off non-essential state properties. They also suggest the state institute reforms in the Department of Corrections, like time-keeping hardware.
But the Department of Corrections said the numbers cited by the two senators are inaccurate. According to the department, around 800 newly trained guards have been hired over the past fiscal year --- and that plans are in the works to hold more guard training sessions in the current fiscal year.
(AP Photo/Seth Perlman, File)
A Sangamon County judge says he will announce his decision on Friday in the salary dispute between Gov. Pat Quinn and regional school superintendents who aren't getting paid.
The state's 44 regional superintendents kept working this summer, even after Gov. Quinn vetoed their salaries out of the state budget. Quinn has said the state can't afford to continue paying them, but the superintendents are suing to force the state to pay up.
"We don't dispute that the constitution gives the governor the authority to engage in item vetoes, but we're saying its without consequence in this case," said Charles Schmadeke, the superintendents' attorney.
Schmadeke argues Quinn's budget veto isn't the end all be all it normally would be, because there is a state law explicitly creating superintendent's positions and their salaries.
"The General Assembly has the ability to create offices and it also has the ability to eliminate offices," Schmadeke said. "Our point of view is that is a legislative function, not one of the executive. And especially when the General Assembly has been so specifically clear about what people should do and how they should be paid."
The state contends the salaries cannot be paid without an appropriation in the budget.
Sangamon County Judge John Schmidt said he is "aghast" at the state's position the veto isn't creating hardship. But he nonetheless is wary of how far the judiciary can interfere with the executive branch.
Regional superintendents perform a variety of duties, from inspecting school buildings to running GED programs.
A proposed wind farm for Champaign and Vermilion Counties goes before the Champaign County Zoning Board of Appeals tonight.
The ZBA's 7 PM meeting at the Brookens Center in Urbana is the first of four scheduled meetings on the proposal from Chicago-based Invenergy Wind. County Planning and Zoning Director John Hall said he hopes the zoning board can reach a conclusion on the proposal by its Sept. 29 meeting --- so the county board can act in October. But he said if there's enough public interest, more meetings may be scheduled.
"This could go beyond Sept. 29, if necessary," Hall said. "We absolutely have to listen to what people want to say, provided it's no redundant, and it's relevant to the application. And if that literally takes longer than Sept. 29, that's what we'll have to do."
The Champaign County Board could vote on the application as early as Oct. 20.
Invenergy's proposed California Ridge wind farm would place 30 wind turbines in northeast Champaign County, north of Royal, and 104 turbines in western Vermilion County.
The Vermilion County Board approved a building permit for the project in July.
Decatur Mayor Mike McElroy says he is running on the Republican ticket in Illinois' newly created 48th Senate District.
McElroy was elected in April 2009 to finish the term of former mayor Paul Osborne. He won re-election this year, and his mayoral term ends in 2015. McElroy credits his efforts - during his two year tenure as mayor - in improving the city's economy by making tough decisions, which have included cutting jobs while foregoing tax increases.
"It's one of the things that has kept Decatur with a AA credit rating," McElroy said. "A lot of municipalities are not having that. I just believe the cities, the state need to be run like a business."
McElroy's Democratic challenger in the race is former Springfield City Council member Bill Clutter, who announced his candidacy in July. These days, Clutter serves as Director of Investigations of the Downstate Illinois Innocence Project.
Clutter said the focus of his campaign will be on job creation and political reform in Illinois. He said he would like to see open primaries and term limits in the General Assembly. As of right now, there are no other Democrats in the race, but Clutter suspects that won't continue to be the case.
"The first hurdle is getting through the Democratic primary," he said. "I'm anticipating that this will be a contested primary. I'm running the race as if it is. I can't think ahead to the general election without focusing first on the primary."
The Herald and Review reports Andy Manar, who is the chief of staff to Illinois Senate President John Cullerton, is also interested in running for the open Senate seat. Manar did not immediately return a call for comment.
The 48th Senate District seat includes downtown Decatur and downtown Springfield, and also stretches to parts of Macoupin and Madison counties.
Illinois drivers may soon see tollway fares nearly double, as the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority board could vote on the increase at a meeting Thursday.
The proposal would bump tolls for I-PASS users from 40 cents up to 75 cents - a nearly 86 percent increase. Drivers paying with cash would still have to shell out double the I-PASS amound, or $1.50.
The Illinois Tollway says all those extra quarters would add up to $12 billion to fund a massive, 15-year construction program. The plan calls for widening a long stretch of I-90, from near O'Hare Airport to Rockford. It would also finally allow for an interchange at the Tri-State Tollway and I-57 - two roads that cross each other, but don't connect.
For commuters, tollway officials say that would ultimately mean less time stuck in traffic. Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn, who gets to appoint tollway board members, has said he supports the increase. Supporters of the plan say it would also create much-needed construction jobs. But critics have reportedly said the toll hike is larger than what's needed to fund the road projects.
The tollway board meeting Thursday comes after several public hearings around the state. If the capital plan is approved, the hike would go into effect on the first of the year.
Construction on a center dedicated to capturing and sequestering carbon dioxide began Wednesday at Richland Community College in Decatur. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas linked to climate change.
The new facility, known as the National Sequestration Education Center, will be used as a teaching lab to train Richland students on how to cut down on greenhouse gas emissions. The center, which is the only one of its kind, is being funded by the U.S. Energy Department. David Larrick, director of sequestration at Richland Community College, said he expects the new center will garner additional interest in renewable energy.
"I am in favorable of renewable energy resources, but we're not moving there fast enough," Larrick said. "Carbon capture sequestration can be used now to reduce atmospheric CO2 emissions. We can't wait for decades for wind and solar to be our primary energy resources."
The actual carbon sequestration won't happen at the new center, but rather in a well on the grounds of Archer Daniels Midland Company in Decatur.
"So, they'll be able to monitor the wells, groundwater, soils, atmospheric conditions, CO2 levels, maybe even do some seismic surveys," Larrick explained. "There will be a lot of real world data that they can use. It's not just going to be learned in a textbook."
Larrick said the facility should be open by next spring. He said officials with Richland Community College plan to revise the school's curriculum by adding a degree for students who want to learn about capturing and storing carbon dioxide. He said the degree could be available by January 2012.
"We're going to have to my knowledge the first associate of applied sciences degree in the nation in sequestration technology," Larrick added.
The new center won't just be available to students attending Richland Community College. The Illinois State Geological Survey also said it plans to also use the center to offer a series of courses to the public on energy conservation.
"Understanding and researching technology that will help us balance our environmental and our energy needs is essential to society," said Sally Greenberg, assistant director of the Advanced Energy Technology Initiative at the Illinois State Geological Survey. "We will look to what the best educational opportunities are and how to work with those."
Greenberg said the courses could last from anywhere between a week to an entire semester. The discussions could focus on topics like developing a carbon capture sequestration project, researching carbon capture sequestration, and implementing that research to other areas of science.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Energy Department said construction has begun on a $207 million project at Archer Daniels Midland. The goal is to capture one million tons of carbon dioxide a year and store it more than a mile underground starting in 2013.
The government has provided $141 million in financial support. The rest of the financing is private.
ADM also has a smaller, existing carbon-capture project at the site. The new project is one of several other government-backed carbon-capture projects being planned or built around the country.
A Champaign city council member says a proposed stormwater utility fee goes beyond the problems of a couple of neighborhoods, and impacts the city's marketability to prospective residents and businesses.
Marci Dodds and other council members unanimously backed the plan for a tiered fee system in Tuesday night's study session. She has heard years of complaints from residents who have seen their streets, basements, and backyards flooded by excessive rain.
Dodds said the problem came to head about ten years ago.
"The council and the city then took a step back and looked at the stormwater problem as a whole," she said. "They said 'Ok, where are the low points - let's start with those, and then work our way upstream. I mean really, how are you ever going to invest in this town if you're taking a canoe down Green Street?"
The tiered system means the majority of homeowners would pay less than $4 a month. Anyone with more than 6,000 square feet of impervious area on their property, like roofs or driveways, would pay close to $8 a month. And those with 8,000 or more square feet of such an area would pay about $10 monthly. But Dodds said residents can avoid paying the fee by investing in a rain barrel or rain garden, and earning credits in return from the city.
Champaign Public Works Director Dennis Schmidt said he recognizes there hasn't been a lot of public input on the idea yet. A committee formed by his department will be doing some outreach over the next several months.
Schmidt said the panel will meet with park districts, school districts, homeowners' groups and apartment owners to explain why the fee is needed, and how it will affect individuals. He said the city has identified about $80-million in needed stormwater improvements.
"Whether you're talking about 4th and Green (Streets), flooding viaducts, flooding in the John Street or Washington Street areas, I think the flooding is well documented in this community," Schmidt said. "I think there's other issues of areas where there's just no stormwater handling capabilities at all in the area."
Schmidt said discussions on the fee won't resume until February, so it if the plan passes, it will likely be 2013 before residents paying start it.
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