Illinois Public Media News

AP - Illinois Public Media News - July 29, 2011

Chicago-Based Groupon Faces Fierce New Competitor

Chicago-based Groupon is facing a fierce new competitor in the group discount market. Amazon.com is launching Amazon Local and promises to save consumers 50 percent or more on daily email deals.

Amazon Local has tip-toed into six markets around the US, and Chicago is its latest hold. With more than 140 million users across the globe, Amazon Local could become the industry's leader.

RJ Hottovy is a senior stock analyst with Morningstar. He said, "I think consumers may be more apt to open up the email or listen to the daily deal from Amazon, so it could have the potential to be a very disruptive force."

But at the same time, Hottovy thinks the scores of copy-cat deal sites could become a bad thing for featured businesses. "I feel like the market may be nearing saturation and it's going to be more and more difficult for rivals to have deals that stand out among consumers at this point," he said.

And in another nerve-wracking move for established internet companies, Amazon.com, Inc. announced Thursday that it reached an agreement with NBC Universal to license and stream movies.

So now online entertainment companies Hulu and Netflix are joining Groupon in the "what exactly does this mean for us?" waiting game.

Categories: Business, Technology

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - July 29, 2011

Illinois Mayors Call for Debt Ceiling Compromise

More than three dozen Illinois mayors signed a letter Friday urging President Obama and members of Congress to take action on the nation's debt ceiling crisis, or risk another recession.

They say if lawmakers don't reach an agreement on a debt-limit solution before the Aug. 2 deadline, basic city services that rely on federal funding may not get supported. At that time, the Treasury Department will be forced to prioritize its spending commitments.

St. Joseph Mayor B.J. Hackler said he is concerned about highway construction projects that could be put on hold in his town if the debt ceiling is not raised.

"So, if people can't get to your town, they're sure as hell ain't going to build anything," Hackler said. "It got to be resolved. They got to unite together in some fashion to solve this problem."

Hackler also expressed concern about funding for water and sewer projects in St. Joseph.

Meanwhile, Danville Mayor Scott Eisenhauer said he is concerned about the impact on Social Security and Medicare payments. He said he is also worried federal funding for Danville's Mass Transit District could be jeopardized.

"Right now we are experiencing 50,000 riders a month," Eisenhauer explained. "If in fact that program were to be reduced or halted in any way, how will those individuals get to places where they need to be?"

Champaign Mayor Don Gerard said not raising the debt ceiling could put a damper on job growth and economic development in his city.

"You know, trying to get our job growth back up and our economic development, I think that's just one of the key factors," Gerard said. "It's hard to move forward with recruiting new business if we're not sure we can keep our roads and our infrastructure in shape."

Others mayors to sign the letter included Rahm Emanuel of Chicago and Laurel Prussing of Urbana.

In a statement, the Treasury Department did not provide details on the bills it would pay should the government default on its debt obligations. President Barack Obama on Friday urged Democrats and Republicans in the Senate to come together on a plan that can pass the House and that he can sign into law.


AP - Illinois Public Media News - July 28, 2011

Caterpillar to Pay $2.55 M for Air Act Violations

The U.S. Department of Justice says Caterpillar Inc. has agreed to pay $2.55 million to settle allegations that it violated the U.S. Clean Air Act.

The department said Thursday that it believed the Peoria-based heavy equipment-maker had shipped more than 590,000 engines that lacked proper emissions controls. The engines were for vehicles made for highway travel and for other purposes.

Engines lacking such controls can emit excess nitrogen oxides and other pollutants that can harm human health.

As part of a consent decree signed with the department, Caterpillar also must continue recalling the engines to make repairs.

Caterpillar spokeswoman Bridget Young says the company denies any wrongdoing and will comply with the decree.


WILL - Illinois Public Media News - July 28, 2011

CUB Calls for Changes in Smart-Phone Data Packages

The Citizens Utility Board says most smart phone users are paying too much for their service, because of wireless data plans that are too big for their needs.

At a Champaign news conference on Thursday, CUB spokesman Patrick Deignan said an analysis they commissioned of Verizon bills nationwide showed that their average smart phone customer used less than 500 megabytes of data per month --- far less than what was provided by Verizon's lowest data plan. Diegnan said that industry-wide, the available data plans were either too big, or too small.

"Verizon, for example, their standard data plan for a smart phone is two gigabytes," he said. "AT&T and T-Mobile, I believe, offer 200 megabyte plans. But we're not seeing a plan to fit the average user, which is about 450 megabytes a month."

Deignan said that means many wireless customers are buying plans that are too big for their needs, causing them to pay for capacity they don't use. He said CUB is calling on the wireless industry to improve the situation for consumers --- by offering lower-tier data plans of 500 megabytes to 1 gigabyte, as well as family share plans and rollover data to help wireless customers make their money go further.

In the meantime, the consumer group is inviting smart phone users to run their wireless bill through CUB's online Cellphone Saver, to find out how where to cut unused data or unwanted services. Diegnan said that the Cellphone Saver program has analyzed more than 19,000 bills since its launch three years ago -- and found savings in 70% of the cases.

A spokesman for the wireless industry could not be immediately reached for comment.

Categories: Business, Technology

AP - Illinois Public Media News - July 28, 2011

Illinois Law Seeks to Make Cancer Treatments More Affordable

Illinois is joining a growing number of states making oral chemotherapy treatments more affordable.

For years, cancer drugs were usually injected. But scientific advances have made oral treatment possible, and in many cases, preferred. The problem is they usually come with a higher cost and insurance policies will not always pick up the tab.

Governor Pat Quinn has signed a law that will require health coverage of both types of treatment at a similar cost to the patient. Supporters of the new law say it will improve the quality of care patients receive.

"As an oncologist, I see firsthand the struggles cancer patients go through as they fight this devastating disease," said Dr. Katherine Griem, chair of the American Cancer Society's Illinois chapter. "One thing they shouldn't have to struggle with is how they get the treatment they need."

Griem said the law, which will take effect in January, will give those fighting cancer one less thing to worry about.

Oral chemotherapy drugs are preferred for certain types of cancer. They are also part of the growing trend of so called 'smart drugs" that are designed to attack only cancer cells, which better protects the immune system. Griem said smart drugs target the cancer and have been found to result in fewer side effects. While they come with a higher price tag, they can also reduce therapy time and save on long term medical costs.

Categories: Business, Health, Science

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - July 27, 2011

Public Housing Tenants Cite Challenges in Finding New Homes

(With additional reporting by Pam Dempsey of CU-CitizenAccess)

About a dozen residents from Joann Dorsey Homes and Dunbar Court protested outside of the Champaign County Housing Authority Wednesday to bring to light the troubles they have had finding a new place to live.

Their protest had the intended effect - a meeting with housing authority officials within the next week or so and increased help to find a place to live.

Earlier this year, the housing authority received federal approval to demolish the two apartment complexes as part of redevelopment plan to rebuild larger, mixed-income properties. The complexes have provided housing for low-to-moderate income residents and have been managed by the housing authority.

The properties make up about 90 units of the housing authority's public housing stock and are the oldest public housing properties in the area.

As part of redevelopment plans, the housing authority issued Section 8 vouchers to the residents in June. The vouchers, which provide subsidies for low income families and individuals, are used to rent properties nationwide from private landlords.

"We're out here today because one month ago we were given Section 8 vouchers, (yet) only five residents at Dorsey have been able to find housing," said Margaret Neil, a resident of Joann Dorsey Homes and a commissioner with the housing authority board.

Public housing residents said that finding a place to live under the new payment standards is difficult. Residents also say some landlords have ill conceived notions of people who live in public housing, and do not want to rent to those with Section 8 vouchers. They also say some housing units simply don't have enough space, or do not offer rent that is low enough to meet voucher standards.

"Most of the residents at Joann Dorsey I know that have found places, it's because their sister was renting from that landlord," Neil said. "They haven't gone out cold turkey and found a place. For most of the residents at Joann Dorsey and Dunbar, I think are from Chicago. So, they don't have those ties in the community."

Section 8 vouchers are known as "housing choice" vouchers and allow clients a chance to choose where they want to live. The vouchers cover application fees, security payments, and a certain amount of a tenant's rent based on income. For those with any type of income, the client is required to pay 30 percent of their monthly income toward housing costs. For those without income, the housing authority will pay 100 percent of the housing costs.

The client first finds a place and the housing authority then must approve the unit by calculating the client's affordability rate and then inspecting the unit.

"When we heard about, everybody was happy because they was going to tear (it) down and rebuild again," said Cleo Clay recently, president of the Joann Dorsey Homes resident council. "They were supposed to find relocation for everybody up here ... but the problem is houses we seem to be looking for is not affordable for us."

Clay has lived on and off at Joann Dorsey Homes for more than 20 years. It took Clay four tries before she found a place to live - which was pending approval from the housing authority.

"Everybody is getting frustrated and mad," she said, because the landlords are not accepting the vouchers.

The Champaign County Housing Authority has issued about 1,500 Section 8 vouchers and pay $9 million annually in rent, said Edward Bland, executive director of the Champaign County Housing Authority.

Up until last year, the housing authority paid 110 percent of the fair market rent in the Champaign-Urbana area. To conserve money, however, the board voted to reduce that amount to 95 percent, Bland said.

"We want to make sure that we are being fiscally responsible," Bland said. "There have been several housing authorities throughout this country that have run into a financial situation where they had to take families off the program because they were over spending money in the section 8 program."

The fair market rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Champaign-Urbana, according to federal housing standards is $713. Under the new rental payments, the housing authority will only pay no more than $688 for that apartment.

"As of June of last year, they effectively made it not feasible from a financial standpoint to rent to Section 8 (clients)," said local landlord Antwuan Neely.

Neely owns more than 100 properties in Champaign-Urbana - mostly single-family houses. He said he leases about one-third of his properties to Section 8 tenants.

At 110 percent, the former payment standard gave low-to-moderate income families more housing options, Neely said.

"But by reducing the payment standards, it seriously affected those families," he said. "Yes you still can find places in Champaign-Urbana, but with the economy as it is, now you have a lot more people looking for the same type of properties."

Of the 90 or so families in the two public housing complexes, 20 of them have found new places to live, Bland said.

"We will not be forcing any families to move before they are ready to move because we want to make sure every family is comfortable with where they want to go," he said.

Bland said that the housing authority held more than a dozen meetings since last year to work with residents and will continue to meet with them to alleviate their concerns. He said his department will not move forward with tearing down the apartments until all the tenants move out.

"We realize that for some they may need some extra help, and that's what the housing authority is here for," he said. "We're setting up additional meetings with the families ... within the next week or so (to) once again to let those families know they aren't being pushed out."

For the protesters, a meeting is just what they wanted.

"We hope that by picketing down here today, the housing authority will realize that the help they promised - we're serious, we want that help, we will be your face until we get that help, we hope that a meeting will come out of picketing," Neil said.

Late Wednesday, Bland met with Neil to discuss further assistance. He said that the housing authority will increase the value of the Section 8 voucher from its current 95 percent to its previous 110 percent for Joann Dorsey Homes and Dunbar Court tenants "for relocation purposes".

He said that housing authority officials still plan to meet with residents to discuss assistance.

Categories: Business, Economics

AP - Illinois Public Media News - July 26, 2011

Quinn Meets with Emanuel on McCormick Place

Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn wants to negotiate with unions to keep labor reforms at Chicago's McCormick Place convention center.

But he also says he and top lawmakers are ready to bring legislators back to Springfield in September to fine tune any necessary legislation.

Quinn met Tuesday with Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the state's four legislative leaders about ways to keep the work rule changes.

A federal judge ruled in March that many of the labor reforms lawmakers wanted at McCormick were illegal because they went beyond the terms of union contracts.

The judge also ruled legislators overturned collective bargaining rights in violation of the National Labor Relations Act.

Some conventions have pulled out of the city because of the high cost to host events at McCormick.


WILL - Illinois Public Media News - July 26, 2011

Post Offices in East Central Illinois Up for Review

The financially-struggling U.S. Postal Service is putting thousands of post offices under review for possible closure - including many in east central Illinois.

Two of them are Champaign's Campustown post office and the facility inside the U of I's Altgeld Hall. But most are rural post offices in some of the smallest communities. They include Bondville, Dewey, Ivesdale, Penfield, Royal and Longview in Champaign County as well as Armstrong, Collison, Indianola and Muncie in Vermilion County and DeLand in Piatt County.

Valerie Welsch is with the post office's district headquarters in Saint Louis. Welsch said being on the list does not necessarily mean closure -customers who use those post offices will be given questionnaires before any closing decision is made.

"The local operations manager will make a determination whether they think that's possible," she said. "If they do, that'll get forwarded to the district manager. If he feels it's warranted, then it will go to our national headquarters in Washington, DC for a final decision."

Welsch said if a post office is tagged for closure, there is another 30-day public appeal process. She said the Postal Service is seeing more people use online and other retail services for things like stamps. Welsch also said post offices in communities are sometimes replaced by community postal boxes.

Categories: Business, Economics

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - July 22, 2011

Ameren Reports Record Power Usage this Week

The electric utility serving most of central and southern Illinois says it churned out a record amount of power this week.

Ameren says consumers used more than 9600 megawatts of electricity at one point Thursday, breaking a record that was just set on Tuesday. The old record was set four summers ago, in August 0f 2007.

Ameren spokesman Leigh Morris said as long as there are heat advisories in place for the area, no one's power will be deliberately shut off, even those who are haven't paid their bills. But they will not be safe once the weather cools, and Morris said they have had plenty of warning.

"They have received many many notices advising them that they are falling behind in their bill," Morris said. "Eventually they will receive what is called a disconnection notice. However again they are encouraged to contact us to set up a payment plan because we don't want to disconnect them."

Morris said Ameren has not had any heat-related outages, and it has been able to handle the high demand without calls to cut back on power use.

Categories: Business, Energy, Environment

AP - Illinois Public Media News - July 21, 2011

Express Scripts to Buy Medco

Two of the nation's largest pharmacy benefits management companies could become one in the first six months of next year.

The $29.1 billion merger between St. Louis-based Express Scripts and and Medco Health Solutions, based in New Jersey, still needs approval from both shareholders and regulators. The boards of both companies approved the merger on Thursday.

If approved, the company, which would retain the Express Scripts name and headquarters, would be the largest of its kind in the country. Together, Express Scripts and Medco handled 1.7 billion prescriptions in 2010, and generated more than $110 billion in revenue.

The size, said Express Scripts' chief spokesman Larry Zarin, would give the new company an edge on reducing health care costs, which he says is a priority of the nation as well as the corporation.

"Where we are with health care costs, where we are with health care reform, the size of that challenge and the absolute call for new, innovative solutions, both structurally and tactically, and we're going to take on both," he said.

The companies say they have identified $1 billion in potential savings by streamlining areas like the supply chain and research and development.

But Zarin ducked questions about possible layoffs.

"Today is not the day to talk about that," he said. "Today is the day to look forward. "We're going to take a very thoughtful approach to the integration, a very thoughtful approach in terms of structuring the organization in the best way, and we're not really going to take a look at head count today."

Medco has 20,000 employees - Express Scripts has about 13,000.

Categories: Business, Health

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