Illinois Public Media News
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.
The mayor of Urbana says the best way to provide Big Broadband service in Champaign-Urbana is to have city government run the system.
The Big Broadband project's application for federal stimulus money envisions a system where any and all service providers can share the infrastructure and compete against each other. But Urbana Mayor Laurel Prussing says city government is best suited to provide Big Broadband --- Internet, TV and phone service --- to homes and businesses.
"Other cities have done this successfully", says Prussing, "and they're able to offer the customers a lower price --- and make money for the city, which benefits the customers as taxpayers."
Prussing says city government could get an exclusive lock on operating Big Broadband service by building and owning the final leg of optic fiber to homes and businesses. Except for about 46-hundred homes in underserved areas, that infrastructure won't be included in the first phase of Big Broadband now waiting for federal funding.
The idea was discussed at Monday night's Urbana City Council meeting. Prussing says her city --- with possibly Champaign joining them --- may hire a consultant to study the matter.
A Champaign city councilman is proposing a "family resource center" to provide services to residents of the city --- but especially to its northeast side.
1st District City Councilman Will Kyles says the need for a center to bring community services into the northeast side became clear to him in his work as outreach coordinator for Congressman Tim Johnson. He says the center could provide services and activities for children, teens, parents --- even ex-convicts trying to make a fresh start.
"We believe in structures, we need structures," Kyles said. "But the issue is that it'll take awhile to rebuild those structures, to redevelop the neighborhood. So in the process of redeveloping the neighborhood, why not have services that are building people up?"
Melorene Grantham of the Peer Ambassadors youth group told the city council a family resource center could provide activities for older teens that are currently lacking in the area. She says that's a need her group found out about from its monthly meetings with youth at the Champaign County Juvenile Detention Center.
They said they need other things to do to stay out of trouble, like jobs," said Grantham. "We went every month for some years; that was the top thing they say would keep out of trouble."
Kyles says the city of Champaign could work with the community, and leverage state and federal funds to put the family resource center together. But he says it wouldn't happen right away. He hopes the idea can be included among the Champaign City Council's goals for the next 5 to 10 years.
After a year of training police and army forces in Afghanistan, members of an Army National Guard unit based in Urbana are back home.
About 80 members of the Urbana Headquarters unit of the 33rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team were welcomed home at the University of Illinois Assembly Hall last night. A brief ceremony featured an even briefer speech from Governor Pat Quinn. "We are proud of you Guard members. You're the best of the best, the pride of our nation, the pride of our sate," Quinn said. "May the will of the people be the law of the land, and thank you very much."
But the real highpoint came after the soldiers were dismissed, so they could rejoin their families. Sergeant Paul Ogwal of Champaign received flowers from his family, and a hug from his 5 year old son, Faraji. For the past year, Faraji's contact with his dad has been through phone calls and email, and during leave midpoint through the deployment. Ogwal says that sort of separation can be hard for a young child to understand.
"When I came back on leave I bought a globe," Ogwal said. "And I put his name on Illinois, and I had an arrow pointing to Afghanistan to help him picture where I was."
Another 20 members of the 33rd Infantry's Urbana unit rejoined their families in a ceremony earlier in the day in suburban Rockford. A Champaign unit of the 33rd returned home to Champaign last Friday.
Legal video gambling at Illinois taverns is expected to be in place next year, providing tax revenue for state capital projects and local governments. But some local governments have voted to opt out of video gaming. A Champaign County Board committee will consider such a proposal this fall.
The county board's Policy Committee will hold a full discussion on video gaming in November. But committee members heard both sides of the debate over the social impact of video gambling last night. Tom Fiedler of Melody Music in Champaign is president of the Illinois Coin Machine Operators Association, and he says research has shown legal video gaming adds little to a state's gambling addiction problem, thanks in part to strict limits on how many machines a bar can host. "It's a very low impact situation," said Fiedler. "It's not a destination type of thing. It's five machines. It's more for the casual player; it's a form of adult entertainment."
But University of Illinois Business Administration Professor John Kindt --- who's studied the economic impact of legalized gambling --- compares video gaming to crack cocaine when it comes to gambling addiction.
"When these come into a person's backyard, you're in fact doubling the number of addicted gamblers," said Kindt. "And among young people -- students in particular -- it's even worse. It goes up 200, 300, 400 percent."
The impact on students will mean more to the cities of Urbana and especially Champaign, where many bars specialize in serving students. But each city and village can make its own decision on whether to opt out of legal video gaming. Policy Committee Chairman Tom Betz wants local governments to act together on the issue, to avoid creating a patchwork of gambling and no-gambling areas in the county.
Champaign Police want to hear from neighborhoods in order to gear more officers towards crime prevention strategies.
Police Chief R-T Finney will discuss the strategy of 'problem-oriented policing' in the department's annual report before the Champaign City Council tonight. He says the discussions with residents in the past year have ranged from town-hall meetings with neighborhood associations to those focused on one or two blocks. Finney says the complaints start with traffic, but become more specific:
"They'll begin to point out issues other than speeding that really need to be addressed, said Finney. "Some of those issues are drug houses, inattentive landlords who are allowing crimes to occur in their houses, parks that may be affected by certain types of crimes. It may be something like a burglary spree that is occurring in a particular neighborhood."
Finney says often, the solution is as simple as putting up a fence at one home or increasing patrols at a business that sees more service calls.
He says the economy has forced the department to be creative as it shifts officers toward neighborhoods with greater problems. Problem-oriented policing started with meetings in the Garden Hills neighborhood and later moved to homes in the Hill and Church streets areas. Finney says he expects several more neighborhoods will come forth with concerns following tonight's presentation.
A coordinator of a tent community for the homeless wants to turn the project into a full-fledged not-for-profit organization.
In the meantime, Abby Harmon is asking Champaign city officials to practice what she calls "a higher level of ethics" and let the Safe Haven community keep camping on the grounds of St. Mary's Church, at least until winter sets in. Harmon says city regulations forbidding camping ought to be revisited in tough economic times.
"The city has a housing crisis on its hands that it needs to recognize," Harmon said. "Given the housing crisis, there are times when the pre-existing city ordinance is not working for the people. When the law no longer works for the people, the law needs to be modified."
Harmon says in the long term, the Safe Haven group would like to purchase "micro-houses" to replace tents for homeless residents. She describes them as 8x10-foot pre-fab rooms with solid walls that can accommodate heaters. They'd be served by a common kitchen-and-bath facility. Some Champaign council members have criticized the tent community, which was forced to leave its first home at Champaign's St. Jude Catholic Worker House because it violates city codes.
Additions to the Champaign County Courthouse in Urbana are coming together, from the new clock and bell tower to some educational aspects inside the building.
People called for jury duty usually wait in a large room before they're summoned into the courtroom. While they're there, they can now step inside a small theatre in one side of the room and learn about Abraham Lincoln's fledgling legal career as an attorney who traveled through Champaign and other area counties. Cheryl Kennedy of the Early American Museum says the theatre is the most prominent expel of several current and future Lincoln displays at the courthouse.
"It's a great opportunity to use some of your time," Kennedy said. "And not only that, we envision more things on the walls out in the foyer, maybe some exhibit cases, and an opportunity to extend that experience past the audio visual program."
The Lincoln exhibits are being assembled as part of the 200th anniversary of the 16th President's birth. The theatre will be dedicated the weekend after next as well as the clock and bell tower as a part of the Urbana Sweet Corn Festival.
Champaign residents could start seeing more flyers on their cars and doorknobs soon, if the City Council goes ahead with plans to repeal a prohibition against the advertising practice.
Right now, only political and religious groups can leave a flyer on someone's doorknob in Champaign. And it's illegal to leave flyers of any sort on someone's windshield. But after a company that distributes such flyers argued that the ban violates the First Amendment, the council decided to revisit the issue. Council members unanimously endorsed ending the ban on doorknob flyers at Tuesday night's study session. But the council split 5 to 4 on ending the windshield flyer ban. For Councilwoman Marci Dodds, letting commercial handbills be plastered on windshields was too much.
"I don't have a problem with political and religious handbilling. I'm not fond of it because it just one of my pet peeves. But I don't see that commercial (handbilling) falls in the same category as that in the slightest," Dodds said.
But other council members said that the First Amendment wins out and that the council should repeal any law that they believe to be unconstitutional. Council member Tom Bruno said if Champaign resident gets an unwanted handbill on their car or door, they can exercise their own first amendment rights.
"I think a resident who gets an unwanted handbill should take the time to phone the business or the politician and say I'm really upset by this and I'm not going to do business with you," Bruno said.
The council will take a final vote on the issue at a later meeting.
The Urbana Champaign Big Broadband project took another step toward becoming a reality Monday night by winning the Urbana City Council's approval. The council passed two resolutions supporting the plan to launch a community-wide fast and affordable fiber-optic network --- starting with service to low-income and underserved parts of town.
On Tuesday night, the Champaign City Council will vote on the same resolutions that the Urbana Council approved the previous night -- support for the grant application and participation in a consortium with the University of Illinois to oversee the project.
Supporters of the project, known as UC2B, plan to submit an application for a federal economic stimulus grant that - if awarded - would provide 80 percent of the funding. UC2B plans to apply for a smaller state grant this week. Together, Urbana, Champaign and the University of Illinois would match the grants with about 2.4 million dollars of their own money.
UC2B organizer Mike Smeltzer says that because the project is spread over three years, the cities and the U of I don't have to pay the money out all at once.
"The federal government's not going to give us all the money at once," Smeltzer explains. "It's only going to give us money as we make progress, and as we show our match. So as long as we show up with a third of our matching funds, they'll give us a third of the money. And a year later when we need more money, we'll show up with a third, and they'll give us another match."
The supporters envision UC2B branching out to cover the whole community in the future. But the initial buildout would be just in the low-income underserved areas. A community survey has revealed that the territory that could qualify for the grant is smaller than expected --- covering just about 45-hundred people in Champaign and Urbana.
U of I Library Science professor Abdul Alkalimat (al-KAL-ee-mat) says he doesn't think the smaller size will hurt UC2B's chances of winning government funding.
Because it makes it a smaller project, and therefore, from the state level, they could include us at a lesser cost, therefore others might have an opportunity. So in this sense, we think it won't hurt us, it will help us."
The state grant application must be submitted by Wednesday. The federal grant application is due on August 14th.
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