Illinois Public Media News
The author of the University of Illinois' Flash Economic Index says any noticeable recovery in unemployment may happen well after the statistics point to economic recovery.
In November the index measured 91, sell below the threshold for economic growth, but it's improved one whole percentage point in the last two months.
But U of I economist Fred Giertz says the state may not have seen its highest unemployment rate in the current recession just yet. Giertz says unemployment often lags behind economic improvement.
A monthly gauge of the Illinois economy has made a bit of a rebound.
But the University of Illinois Flash Index cautions about putting too much into an October reading that jumped seven tenths of a percent above the previous month. Economist Fred Giertz says the first substantial improvement in the index in two years is evidence of an improving economy. But he says future months may show a much slower recovery, especially if employment doesn't rebound as well.
"Productivity has been increasing even during the downturn, so when demand starts going up again and people start buying more things it's going to take awhile before we start hiring back a lot of people because firms have become more productive, more efficient in the interim," Giertz said. "They don't need as many people as they used to, so it takes a little bit longer."
The Flash Index measures tax revenue each month from corporations, income and sales. Any number over 100 indicates economic growth - the October index came in at 90.7.
In three weeks, a key vote takes place as a site that once contained much of the Army's chemical weapons supply reverts to civilian use.
An agency has put together a plan to reuse the Newport Chemical Depot as the Army lets go of the one-time nerve agent plant and storage site. It sits on 11 square miles in Vermillion County Indiana, just across the Illinois border.
Bill Laubrends is with the Newport Chemical Depot Reuse Authority. He says the plan is the end product of public meetings and input from a wide range of community leaders.
"We've had stakeholder interviews, which include local residents,property owners, business owners, elected officials, representatives of major employers, local and state economic development groups, representation of conservation groups, soil conservation districts, local civic organizations, school districts, et cetera," Laubrends said.
A five member board will vote on the plan November 19th. It recommends the Army set aside nearly 35-hundred acres for industrial or commercial redevelopment. Another 12-hundred acres would remain farmland, and 24-hundred acres would be left as natural areas and parkland.
The next generation of the nation's electricity backbone will need stronger systems to protect it from attacks.
That's why the federal government is setting up an institute dedicated to computer security as it puts more than three billion dollars into improving the electric grid. The University of Illinois' Information Trust Institute will be a part of that effort, helping design software that keeps the improved power network safe from hackers.
Institute director Bill Sanders says the threat exists because the so-called "smart grid" will involve much more computerization than the current system.
"There's much more computerization, both on the distribution side -- and the distribution side is the kind of equipment you might have in your house that actually delivers the power to your house and the feedback and control there -- and on the transmission side, a wide-area data network that supports power generation and transports that power to somewhere near your house," Sanders said.
Three other universities are taking part in the five year, $18.8 million research program. The smart grid is expected to be more efficient and help consumers track and adjust their own power usage.
A proposed combination of Carle Foundation Hospital and Carle Clinic Association may not settle ongoing tax issues surrounding health care facilities in Illinois - in fact, it may complicate them.
Carle Hospital - a not-for-profit company with tax exemptions - plans to purchase Carle Clinic Association, a separate, for-profit firm. The combination would be considered a not-for-profit company.
A University of Illinois law professor says the move makes good business sense. John Colombo says integrating the two organizations will help improve work flow, cost and the way patients get care. But he wonders what may happen if the combined Carle seeks tax exemptions for clinic buildings after paying taxes on them for years. Colombo says local governments will keep a very close eye on that.
"If I were the county assessor or on the county board of review, at this stage I'd demand a lot of evidence that there is serious charity care work going at these sites (Carle Clinic's facilities), and if couldn't get this evidence from Carle I'd recommend a denial of tax exemption and at this point let Carle litigate the issue, Colombo said.
Colombo says doctors who held an ownership stake in Carle Clinic would lose some autonomy under such a deal, but he says they may also get more job stability in return. Those doctors -- and state regulators -- still have to approve the deal. Carle is not granting interviews on the proposal.
Carle Hospital is challenging the loss of its tax-exempt status for property taxes. State and county officials ruled that Carle was not providing enough charity care to qualify.
A not-for-profit hospital and its sister organization, a for-profit clinic, propose integrating in to one not-for-profit group.
Carle Foundation Hospital and Carle Clinic Association have operated as separate entities, but now the Carle Foundation wants state approval for a 250 million dollar purchase of the clinic by the hospital organization. The deal would also involve Health Alliance Medical Plans, which would remain a for-profit organization.
Carle says in a press release that the merger would reduce costs and increase cooperation between the hospital and clinic. The physicians who have a piece of ownership in Carle Clinic would become Carle Foundation employees. They have yet to approve the merger, as do members of the state's Health Facilities and Services Review Board. They meet November 4th in Urbana to hear comments.
Urbana's economic development manager says two hotel operating groups are interested in the Historic Lincoln Hotel.
Tom Carrino didn't name the two companies during Monday night's Urbana City Council meeting. But he says both are interested in possibly bringing a major hotel brand to the facility --- while preserving the building's architectural integrity.
The Historic Lincoln was designed by local architect Joseph W. Royer. It opened in 1924 and closed last March --- about the same time it was acquired by Marine Bank of Springfield in a foreclosure. Its previous owners had struggled to compete with newer hotels located closer to interstate highways. Carrino says the Historic Lincoln's location in downtown Urbana may be a plus to the two hotel groups now considering the property.
"That means that it's relatively close to the University of Illinois", says Carrino. "It's close to some major employers in downtown Urbana. The fact that it was involved in a foreclosure, the bank is motivated to sell the property. That means that a good hotel group could get the property at a relatively reasonable price.
Carrino says he expects both companies will prepare competing offers to Marine Bank for the Historic Lincoln in the coming weeks. He says both companies have discussed possible tax incentives with city officials --- those incentives would be possible due to the hotel's location in a Tax Increment Finance District and a city Enterprise Zone.
At least one Saturn dealer in the area says it's heard nothing official about the end of the car brand and the shutdown of its dealership network.
General Motors says a deal to sell Saturn's distribution system and brand to Penske Automotive Group fell through because Penske wasn't able to find an automaker to make Saturns past 2011. GM now says the dealerships will be phased out.
Bill Lutes manages Saturn of Terre Haute, which has been in business for ten years. He says it's hard to tell his 30 employees what to do next because there's been no word from GM to dealers.
"I've met with everybody and told them Plan A is 'business as usual' and Plan B is to explore other options," Lutes said. "We'll just stay positive and keep smiling."
Lutes says the other options could include finding another new car franchise or selling only used cars. The dealership is owned by Evansville-based Romain Auto Group, which also owns three other Saturn dealers.
As the national debate over health care ensues, the Illinois Supreme Court is considering a case over a Urbana hospital's tax status. The outcome, claim hospital officials, could lead to reduced medical services and higher prices.
Justices will have to decide if Provena Covenant Medical Center provided enough free or discounted care to poor patients to qualify as tax exempt. The state in 2003 determined the answer was no and forced the Catholic-run hospital to pay property taxes.
Assistant Attorney General Evan Siegel defended the state's action before the court. He says the year before, only 300 of Provena's 110 thousand admissions received charity care, not enough to deserve tax breaks.
"It doesn't matter whether an organization itself is charitable," Siegel told the high court. "What matters is whether its using the property for a charitable purpose."
But Provena's attorney, Patrick Coffey, argues the hospital qualifies because it cared for any and all patients, regardless of their ability to pay.
"It doesn't matter what amount of charity, here free care ... was given," Cofey said. "Free care was given without limit."
The court's decision has widespread ramifications statewide. If nonprofit hospitals have to pay taxes, there's speculation they would increase prices or cut back services. The high court is expected to issue an opinion in coming months.
If natural gas prices are stable this winter, central and southern Illinois homeowners will pay less to heat their homes.
Ameren predicts the price it will pay for natural gas will average 26 percent less than last year's heating season. The utility passes along the price it pays for gas directly to billpayers - and this fall, spokesman Leigh Morris says it's considerably less than the price spike we saw last year with gas and other types of fuel.
"Just going back one year, it was $1.32 a therm, and right now the October price is $0.56 a therm. That's the average for all three utilities," Morris said, citing the three divisions of Ameren's Illinois utilities. "That's about a 58 percent movement from a year ago."
The recession may be to blame for the worldwide drop in demand for natural gas - and thus the drop in prices. Morris is quick to point out that Ameren's pending request for a gas rate increase involves the fee the utility charges to deliver that gas.
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