Illinois Public Media News
Champaign-Urbana's Big Broadband proposal cleared a major hurdle last Tuesday night. The Champaign City Council voted 7-1 to accept a federal grant to help create a new high-speed fiber broadband system --- despite worries about possible future costs.
Champaign is saying yes to a $22 million federal grant plus $3.5 million in state funding to pay for the core infrastructure of the broadband system, plus fiber-to-the-home broadband installations in underserved neighborhoods. Councilman Tom Bruno says the system will give Champaign-Urbana a competitive edge with businesses for the next few years.
"We will have better connectivity than other similar communities," Bruno said. "When somebody trying to decide where to invest, or where to bring the jobs, will like Champaign-Urbana a little bit more than some other city, we will be a little bit ahead of the curve."
But accepting the broadband grant also commits Champaign to spending $688,000 of its own money. Along with Urbana and the U of I, Champaign will become a retail broadband provider, a risk that worries Mayor Jerry Schweighart, who cast the only vote against the project.
"I see a lot of pitfalls on this, and it's going to cost the cities a lot of money at a time when we don't have a lot of money," Schweighatr told council members. "I hope I'm wrong, hope it's highly successful. But I cannot, after reading everything, convince myself to support it."
The Urbana City Council takes its own vote on the Big Broadband project next week.
The Illinois Supreme Court is expected to issue its ruling Thursday in a taxation case that could affect dozens of not-for-profit hospitals in Illinois.
The case involves Provena Covenant Medical Center in Urbana. In 2004 it lost its property tax exempt status because county officials determined the hospital did not provide enough charitable care. State revenue officials agreed, but an appeals court reversed the lower court's decision against Provena. At issue is whether Provena still owes local governments more than a million dollars in property taxes a year since the initial decision. The case is on the high court's list of decisions to be released Thursday - both sides argued before the justices last September.
The group that represents Illinois consumers in utility rate cases says Ameren's proposed rate hike shouldn't go forth - in fact, it claims the utility should be cutting its customers' rates.
The Citizens Utility Board has been collecting petition signatures against a proposed $130 million rate hike - it would affect what Ameren charges to deliver power and natural gas, which makes up about a third of the typical homeowner's utility bill.
CUB director David Kolata contends that Ameren's request is way too high considering the utility's healthy profits and the sluggish economy. He also takes issue with Ameren's plans to ask for yearly increases.
"We would expect them to file right after this case," Kolata said. "That's why we think it's so important for the ICC to put its foot down here. If there's ever been a time to eliminate one (rate hike), now is the time, and hopefully if it occurs, Ameren will learn its lesson that they can't just keep going to the ICC and raising profits at consumers' expense."
Last month a judge recommended that the state lower the rate hike that Ameren proposed to $56 million. The Illinois Commerce Commission will consider that and CUB's opposition when it votes on the rate hike request - that vote is expected next month.
Ameren spokesman Leigh Morris says even the lowered rate increase wouldn't be enough for the utility to operate. He says Ameren has already lowered its proposal by cutting jobs and delaying construction, and the profitability of the overall Ameren holding company does not accurately reflect the performance of its Illinois utilities.
Regulators have taken over the Bank of Illinois in Normal. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation is the appointed receiver.
Heartland Bank and Trust Company of Bloomington will assume all the deposits of Bank of Illinois for a premium of 3.61 percent and has agreed to purchase all the assets.
The FDIC says it expects the cost to the FDIC Insurance Fund will be $53.7 million.
As of December 31, 2009 Bank of Illinois had $211 million in assets. The FDIC and Heartland Bank have entered into a loss sharing program on $166.6 million in remaining assets.
Bank of Illinois is the 24th FDIC Insured institution to fail in the nation this year and the third in Illinois. It was founded in 1914.
160 acres of farm property for growing fruit in Southeast Urbana is being sold by the University of Illinois Foundation, the university's fundraising arm.
The successful bidder for the Pomology Farm, or Pell Farm, is not being disclosed, but the property was listed for sale at $3.2 million. U of I Foundation spokesman Don Kojich says it still had debt on the site adjacent to Meadowbrook Park , that was in excess of $7 million in Fiscal 2009. "The pomology operation had moved from the university so the foundation didn't need the land anymore,' says Kojich. "We're looking to find a way to relieve ourselves of the debt of the property and prepared it for sale."
Kojich says he expects the Foundation to close on the sale within the next couple of months. In 2006, the U of I and its Foundation conducted a land swap, giving up the Pell Farm in exchange for tracts of land used for the South Farms, as well as property near Willard Airport.
The Illinois Department of Insurance is the only agency that stands in front of the merger of Carle Foundation Hospital and Cale Clinic Association.
The deal would have the not-for-profit Carle Foundation purchase the for-profit clinic for $250 million. The clinic's Health Alliance Medical Plans would be the only business to remain for-profit.
Yesterday without opposition, the state Health Facilities and Services Review Board approved a certificate of need clearing the way for the purchase. Carle says the merger will make the organization a stronger health care provider and give the clinic's doctors a stable place of employment. Federal regulators have not raised any questions about the deal - if the state insurance department approves, Carle says the merger could be completed in April.
The U-S Commerce Department has awarded $22.5 million for Champaign-Urbana's Big Broadband project. Now, the Champaign and Urbana city councils and the university of Illinois have 30 days to decide if they'll commit matching funds to the project --- a combined total of $1.3 million.
Champaign City Councilman Will Kyles says he's looking forward to a March 16 council meeting with the consultant the two cities hired to review the Big Broadband proposal. Kyles says he wants to ask Doug Dawson about his concerns with the long-term financial viability of the Big Broadband plan.
"I think it's more the sustainability piece that we're concerned about, as in his report he's projected that we would eventually start losing money. And he also talked about how technology is always changing. So I'd definitely want to talk to him," said Kyles
The federal stimulus money announced Tuesday would fund two major components of the Big Broadband project --- the installation of underground fiber-optic rings making up the backbone of service, and fiber-to-the-home installation of the service in areas considered underserved by broadband providers.
Two other components did not win federal funding. They're both aimed at expanding computer access for underserved populations. Big Broadband proponent Mike Smeltzer says efforts are already underway to re-enter those components in the 2nd round of federal funding.
It may be a long, difficult path to recovery for the Illinois economy according to one indicator.
Each month the University of Illinois Flash Index measures tax revenue to give a snapshot of the state's economic performance. Author Fred Giertz says in February the index inched up to 91.5 after two months at 91.2. The reading is well below the dividing line between growth and contraction, and it's been there for the last year and a half.
Giertz says corporate tax receipts in Illinois are showing signs that the recession is breaking, but that hasn't started translating into more employment.
"The stock market has gone up a lot in the last year because of expectations, and businesses are actually starting to do better," Giertz said. "But the problem is that they're not doing as much hiring now because more efficient during the downturn and they don't need as many people to produce the goods (and services) as they did in the past."
Giertz says many observers predict a very slow decline in unemployment rates over the next year, even as the economy improves.
The Prairie Meadows subdivision in Savoy is among the areas that could be annexed into the Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District later this year.
Managing Director Bill Volk says the CU-MTD Board has directed his staff to prepare annexation and legal notices for five areas. Public hearings will be held before the board takes a vote on annexation.
Prairie Meadows is the first major residential area of Savoy to be considered for CU-MTD annexation since the village and the transit district signed an agreement two years ago. Volk says that agreement protects some parts of Savoy from MTD annexation --- but not new residential areas.
"There are sections in Savoy that we cannot annex for 23 years, but other areas of Savoy, as they become annexable we are allowed per the agreement to annex that territory," Volk said.
The Stone Creek subdivision in southeast Urbana is also on the CU-MTD annexation list. Non-residential areas up for annexation include the Clearview commercial development site in northwest Champaign, some industrial tracts near the Apollo Industrial Park in north Champaign, and Willard Airport.
Volk says the CU-MTD Board will not vote on annexing the territories until after the next fiscal year begins July 1. If annexation is approved, property owners would not pay taxes to the MTD until the summer of 2012.
After mold and ventilation problems delayed the completion of the new Champaign County nursing home, the county board went after the nursing home's builders to collect damages. Now the last of those efforts is completed.
Arbitrators have ruled that Otto Baum Company, one of the prime contractors on the project, must pay Champaign County $405,000 for problems caused by mold found on wood during nursing home construction. After outstanding bills owed to Otto Baum are paid, the county will be ahead by nearly $150,000. Rantoul Township Republican Stan James serves on the county board's facilities committee. He says the settlement of the mold issue frees the county board up to focus on other concerns.
"That's one less thing on our plate, and now we can move on. We've got bigger budget issues to tackle and a host of issues due the economy that we need to be focusing on," James said.
While Champaign County is receiving some money in the binding decision, the arbitrators say the county also shares in the responsibility. The arbitrators' report say that the county, Otto Baum Company and construction manager PKD all should have known that unvented heaters were not adequate to keep mold away from wood used in nursing home construction.
Damages from Otto Baum, plus previous awards from other firms involved in nursing home construction are providing Champaign County with about $1.3 million in payments to help make up for extra costs and delays in nursing home construction. Facilities Committee Chairman Steve Beckett estimates that the payments fall $300,000 to $500,000 short of the county's expenses.
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