Illinois Public Media News
A referendum on township property taxes in Champaign will go on the ballot this fall --- nine months later than intended.
The Champaign City Council voted Tuesday night to place the advisory referendum on the November ballot. It asks Champaign voters if they want to increase their township property tax to provide more General Assistance for the poor.
Voters at last year's annual town meeting approved the referendum for placement on this year's primary ballot, but it was omitted by mistake.
City of Champaign Township Supervisor Pam Borowski was running for the office she now holds when the referendum was proposed. Borowski said the law requires that the measure get on the ballot this November, even though she said hopes it fails. "There's not a need for additional tax revenues at this point in time, and until there is, I'm going to keep saying that we don't need more new property taxes," she said.
The imitative would raise the township tax rate to match General Assistance funding levels in Urbana and other comparable cities. Champaign voters approved a similar advisory referendum in 2008, but rejected a binding referendum for a township tax hike later that same year.
A surprise windfall from the United Way of Champaign County won't keep the local Boy Scouts organization from ending the fiscal year in the red.
The executive of the Prairielands Council says they've raised about $170,000, but its 2010 goal was $225,000. Tim Manard says donations from families involved in Scouting are especially worrisome.
"We ask our families to be part of that campaign since they're getting the direct benefit of scouting," Manard said. "And we saw that they're having to make some tough choices at home, and that's having an impact on what we're able to do."
This week the United Way announced a surplus in its own fundraising campaign. Manard says that will mean an extra five thousand dollar donation to the Boy Scouts to fund more scholarships for Scouts wanting to attend summer camp. He says even with staff and program cuts over the past two years, the organization has made summer camp a priority for its 5,000 Scouts in 9 Illinois and Indiana counties.
A center that helps immigrants and refugees in Champaign County is facing funding shortfalls and may be forced to close. Shelley Smithson's report is part of the "CU Citizen Access" project.
One Champaign city council member says she's hoping city staff will take some time to clarify a measure that seeks to speed up enforcement of standards for vacant buildings.
The plan is to remedy problems with empty commercial and residential properties without having to go through a drawn-out court process. Council member Marci Dodds says she backs the plan overall, but says the language lacked clarity as to how property owners get back into compliance after getting their building back up to standards. The city council and public discussed the measure for more than three hours in Tuesday night's study session. Dodds says neighborhood service staff should have written the ordinance to say buildings should meet fire safety codes, and not all property codes. "Do you have to bring your plumbing up to current code in a vacant building? Well, no you don't," said Dodds. "But you have to make sure that holes are patched in the wall, the roof's not going to fall in on firemen if they go in, people aren't going to fall through the floor, that kind of thing. Those are two very different standards. And I think that standard needs to be clear. I also think it needed to be clear what triggered going into a building."
Tom Bruno agrees there's a problem with irresponsible property owners and vacant structures, saying there may need to be more details in the proposal. But he says the neighborhood services department needs to be allowed to do its job. "We have inspectors in the field who are trained and comfortable and qualified at exercising some judgment," said Bruno. "And that a lot of the detailed minutia that people are seeking in this ordinance I don't necessarily needs to be there as long as our enforcement people are well-intentioned, well-trained, and well-able to exercise some discretion."
Property maintenance inspector Michael Lambert says the key is finding what triggers use of the ordinance. He says his staff will try to clarify some of its language, and have it back before the council soon.
The renovation of an old warehouse on Champaign's north end will mean the end of a mural celebrating local African-American history.
The Champaign City Council approved a special use permit Tuesday night that will allow Sullivan Plumbing to convert and expand a one-story warehouse at 5th and Park into a two-story building with both office and apartment space.
But the conversion will cover up the African-American history mural painted on the building's north wall in 1978. Dave Monk was among those involved in the mural project, which he says helped bring white and black together.
"It has connotations of not only local interest, but a demonstration at the national level of how we could interact on the fringe of black-white communities", Monk told council members.
Monk said a way might be found to preserve the mural, if Champaign council members would delay their vote. But the council approved the special use permit unanimously.
Councilman Tom Bruno noted that the mural's creator, Angela Rivers, had told the News-Gazette that it would be too expensive to restore the badly faded work.
"It would be nice if this mural could be preserved", said Bruno. "But it would be even nicer if this building could improve that neighborhood. And perhaps we can't have both."
However, other council members said they hoped the mural would be well-documented for history's sake.
The Illinois Liquor Control Commission admits some changes need to be made in laws concerning happy hour promotions at bars. The Commission dismissed some of those violations at its first-ever meeting in Urbana Tuesday. Most of the tickets were issued during the weekend of March 5th, when many University of Illinois students and guests celebrate 'Unofficial' St. Patrick's Day. Acting Commission Chairman Stephen Schnorf says it was never the panel's intention to punish a bar for misinterpreting the law.
"If we saw things that we thought were encouraging binge drinking or encouraging underage consumption, we wouldn't be very patient with that," said Schnorf. "In these cases, it looked like there were some legitimate misunderstandings, and so we want a little more clarity before we start doing rigorous enforcement in some of these areas of the happy hour law," The violations at Campustown bars like Kam's and Legends were related to concerns that they were offering discounts on refills, or that patrons gave off the impression that they were allowed to engage in binge drinking by purchasing two drinks at once.
Kam's owner Eric Meyer says happy hour laws have created confusion not only around campus area bars, but across the state. He says it's common knowledge that sports venues enable someone to purchase two drinks at once. "I think that's been a standard practice at most of our sporting venues." said Meyer. "We've been able to go up and grab two drinks everywhere we go. That's kind of common knowledge and this is probably an area that has not been enforced. I understand the agent's concern to enforce this during a weekend of great concern and potential binge drinking. I don't think that was the intention here of any of the individuals involved."
Most underage drinking violations handled by the state in Tuesday's 2-hour hearing concerned grocery and convenience stores in Champaign, Urbana, and Danville. Schnorf says the Liquor Control Commission's decision to hold hearings away from Springfield and Chicago was to accommodate bar owners and the attorneys representing them, letting them cut down on travel time.
Signs will soon go up along streets leading into Urbana that tell people their bicycles are welcome.
The purple signs recognize Urbana's new designation as a bike-friendly community by the League of American Bicyclists.
Public Works Director Bill Grey says the signs send an important message.
"It does send a message that this is a town that is accommodating bicycling as a mode of transportation", says Grey. And we're implementing the facilities to do so, and the education and enforcement that go along with that. And encouragement of people to want to get out of their cars , or seek this as a viable mode of transportation."
City councilman and avid cyclist Charlie Smyth says the designation is important for Urbana because of the estimated 8 percent of city residents who use bikes to get to work. Smyth says that's according to the Champaign County Regional Planning Commission. And he says it's important for the city to upgrade its designation from bronze to silver-level. Smyth says that will require more and better bicycle education programs in Urbana --- and better connections between bike paths.
Champaign has not been named a Bicycle Friendly Community --- but the League of American Bicyclists did name Champaign city government a Bicycle Friendly Business.
Longtime Champaign neighborhood services employee Mable Thomas, who passed away last month, will likely receive a street named in her honor.
With unanimous preliminary approval from the Champaign City Council, University Avenue from Elm Street to State Street would be designated as Mable Thomas Street. It was chosen because it borders West Side Park, where Thomas was known for organizing the local National Night Out against Crime.
City Councilman Tom Bruno enthusiastically supports this gesture to honor Thomas, based on what he saw of her work in the Neighborhood Services Department. "She would be able to maintain a level of order and courtesy so that people's emotions could cool down a little and they could talk rationally about a grievance they had or a problem," Bruno said. "In that way, she was just really good at what she did. Her passing is a great loss for the city of Champaign."
Thomas' accomplishments included helping to expand the city's Neighborhood Watch Program and creating the Neighborhood Small Grant Program. She helped to organize hundreds of neighborhood groups and was active in many community organizations and activities, including CommUnity Matters and First Street Farmer's Market.
The bicycling community in Champaign-Urbana hopes to start commuters on a new habit Tuesday morning.
"CU Bike to Work Day" has attracted about 500 people who have signed up to receive a t-shirt and pledge to ride their bike instead of drive. Rick Langlois of the group Champaign County Bikes says the group is now out of shirts, but it still expects lots of unregistered riders to take part too.
He says the goal of the event is to encourage more bicyclists to overcome their worries and take to the streets. Langlois says some are concerned about safety, which is why his group advocates bike lanes for a little more peace of mind.
"Bike lanes are very much an effort to assist those less comfortable or average adult riders feel more comfortable," said Langlois. "A bike lane is not a magic force field and it doesn't keep somerone from being struck by a vehicle, but it does designate a space where a bicyclist is expected to be."
But Langlois also reminds drivers that bicyclists also have the right to use a traffic lane in areas without bike lanes.
He says the bike group is also collecting information on bicycle use for planners in Champaign and Urbana as they consider infrastructure in the years ahead.
Saturday's Illinois Marathon in Champaign-Urbana could alter the schedule for some shoppers at this season's first Market at the Square.
The Market will start its 31st season this weekend at Illinois and Vine Streets in Urbana. Vine is also one of those streets that will see more than 10,000 runners pass through from the west, as the marathon and half-marathon races get underway at 7:30. Starting their route at the U of I by going up 1st Street, runners will be entering Urbana on Green Street, north on Race, and east on Main Street. Lieutenant Kent Jepsen is the special events coordinator with Urbana Police. He expects the intersection of Main and Vine Streets to re-open around 9, but says there will be some gaps. "Prior to that, of course the runners will have lightened up," said Jepsen. "You'll be at the back of the pack of the 9-to-10,000 runners, so there will be pusling across Main and Vine as runners allow. In other words, when there's light runners and gaps in between them, the officer and volunteers will allow traffic to pulse through southbound." Market at the Square shoppers who live just south of that intersection won't be impacted. The runners will continue east on Main Street and south down Cottage Grove.
A total of 14,200 runners are now registered for the 2nd annual Illinois Marathon. Full details are available on line at the Illinois Marathon website. Event Co-director Mike Lindemann says motorists in Champaign won't see the same impact, with some streets limited to one lane. "I don't want to say there won't be delays in Champaign, there will be." said Lindemann. "But if people are patient, or if they look at that web site, there's a beltway map to get around the course. And to get around it, obviously you have to drive a few miles out of the way, but it might be better than waiting 15 or 20 minutes at a corner to get across the street." Lindeman says the event has now recruited the volunteers necessary for Saturday's events. Six countries and 46 states are represented in the marathon, half-marathon, and 5K race.
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