Champaign County's Convention and Visitors Bureau is getting an influx of $15,000 dollars from the county.
The Champaign County Board's 17-to-3 decision Thursday night was brought on by Urbana Mayor Laurel Prussing's decision to veto funding of $72,000 dollars to the CVB. The city council this week upheld the veto. The funds from the county are a portion of the local hotel-motel tax. It was approved in the 1980's to pay off bonds for some work at Willard Airport. This year, it's expected to be about $22,000.
District 9 Democrat Brendan McGinty says a portion of the tax really wasn't backing tourism anymore.
"And previously, we had been using it for tourism-related things, but things like sheriff's overtime to support events, and to pay those bills basically," he said. "Now the sheriff charges municipalities and events for that kind of service. This money is available and it's absolutely a proper use of those funds."
But opponent and District 6 Democrat Michael Richards says there are far better uses for the $15,000.
"There are dozens of social service agencies that are being affected by state and federal and local budget cuts," he said. "Yet, suddenly, when the convention and visitors bureau are facing the prospect of budget cuts, people come running to the rescue. I don't see why the CVB should be exempt from the same ethos as everybody else,"
Richards voted the funding down, along with Pattsi Petrie and Carol Ammons, also both Democrats. The Urbana City Council does plan to take up the issue of CVB funding later, with hopes of funding the agency at a lower level. CVB President Jayne DeLuce admits the timing of the county's donation surprised her. But she says it will augment the CVB's current budget, and not replace funds it would have received from Urbana.
"I will still have to figure out in our budget what we will do based on the level of funding that Urbana provides," she said. "I don't have any idea of what they're looking at at this point, but they're planning to discuss it Monday night at their committee of the whole meeting."
Urbana Alderman Charlie Smyth said Monday he hopes to dedicate at least $20,000 in allocated funds for the Convention and Visitors Bureau. The city council meets Monday night at 7.
(Reported by Dan Petrella of CU-CitizenAccess)
The city of Champaign came up with a plan 25 years ago to repair deteriorating sidewalks.
Since then, the city has fixed some old ones and developers have built new sidewalks in new subdivisions.
But in some of the older areas in town - many of which are home to low-income residents - the city never had a plan to install sidewalks and has never done so.
In fact, despite the city's goal of being a "walking community," about one-fourth of its streets lack sidewalks, according to planning documents.
Champaign's 2011 comprehensive plan states that development should be "designed to promote street life and encourage walking with interconnected sidewalks, trails and streets." Sidewalks also provide a safe way for children to walk to school, for those who use public transit to get to their bus stops and even for residents to walk their dogs, city officials say.
"Sidewalks are an important element in promoting walkability and recreation," Lacey Rains Lowe, a Champaign city planner, said in an email interview.
Leslie Kimble lives in Dobbins Downs, one of the older neighborhoods in town without a complete sidewalk system. The subdivision, located just north of Interstate 74, was originally developed outside Champaign's limits, but a portion of the neighborhood has since been annexed into the city.
It is one of the lower-income areas in town, a factor Kimble thinks adds to the neighborhood's need for sidewalks.
"Because our neighborhood is low-income, there are many people without cars," Kimble said. "Sidewalks in our neighborhood, especially leading along Anthony Drive to all the stores and restaurants, would be very helpful, not to mention much more safe."
City documents show that planners are aware of the problem.
"Some streets (in Dobbins Downs) have sidewalks while others do not, resulting in a disjointed system," according to the city's comprehensive plan. This limits residents' access to nearby employers and the restaurants and stores on North Prospect Avenue.
Sidewalks not required until 1970s
The condition of a neighborhood's sidewalk system is directly related to planning regulations at the time the neighborhood was developed, according to city documents and planning officials
Lynn Dearborn, a University of Illinois professor of urban and regional planning, said the fact that many of the neighborhoods without sidewalks are lower income is most likely a coincidence.
"Whether a neighborhood in the city has a sidewalk system is largely based upon when it was developed and what state policy was," Dearborn said. "I've noticed parts of the city that are more well-to-do but still are lacking sidewalks in some areas."
Prior to the early 1970s, Champaign, like Urbana and many other cities, did not require sidewalks in residential areas. That meant neighborhoods developed during the 1950s and 1960s never had any installed. Since then, it has been mandatory for all new developments - residential, commercial and industrial - to have sidewalks installed along their streets.
But constructing sidewalks in older neighborhoods is complicated and expensive due to existing infrastructure and the need to negotiate right-of-way agreements with property owners, according to planning documents.
"When a neighborhood is designed without key urban design elements ... it is much, much harder and more costly to locate and build those things after the fact," Rains Lowe, the city planner, said.
Champaign's ongoing financial woes make it unlikely that this situation will change in the foreseeable future. Adopted in 2008, Champaign's transportation master plan says that "adding sidewalks on the miles and miles of arterials, collectors and local streets is not financially possible in existing neighborhoods."
Meanwhile, the budget for the fiscal year that began July 1 reduced some funding for repairing aging sidewalks.
Sidewalks increase by 32 percent
The mileage of sidewalks throughout the city has increased by 32 percent in five years, from about 267 miles of sidewalks in 2005 to 352 miles in 2010, according to city documents. This is a result of new development, annexation and a handful of projects that built new sidewalks in existing areas of the city.
Before retiring in May, Gup Kramer, former concrete supervisor for the Champaign Public Works Department, said that creating new sidewalks is not the city's main priority. For the past 25 years, the plan has been to fix up sidewalks that have deteriorated over time but not install more in most existing neighborhoods.
As part of the city's sidewalk rehabilitation program, enacted in 1985, Public Works budgets about $400,000 for sidewalk repairs each year. The department's Engineering Division also provides about $200,000 annually for repairs through its neighborhood infrastructure repair program.
But cuts to the Public Works budget this year will slow the pace of sidewalk repairs.
Sidewalks lacking in higher income areas too
Gabe Lewis, a transportation planner with the Champaign County Regional Planning Commission, has studied pedestrian issues extensively through his work on the Champaign-Urbana Safe Routes to School Project.
The project's goals include educating the public about the safest ways for pedestrians and bikers to get to school and identifying problems, such as a lack of sidewalks, that keep kids from walking and biking.
While some lower-income schools lack sidewalks in the surrounding area, the problem is not exclusive to these neighborhoods, Lewis said.
For example, the lack of sidewalks in the neighborhood south of Kirby Avenue and east of Prospect Avenue is a major barrier that prevents students from walking to Bottenfield Elementary School, according to the Safe Routes to School report. Bottenfield, 1801 S. Prospect Ave., is located in a higher-income neighborhood and has a smaller percentage of low-income students than the Champaign school district as a whole.
The Safe Routes to School Project has worked with the city of Champaign to try to obtain funding to fill in gaps in sidewalk systems near schools.
Late last year, the city and the Regional Planning Commission applied for a grant through the Illinois Department of Transportation that would pay for improvements near Stratton Elementary School, 902 N. Randolph St., where about 70 percent of students come from low-income families. Among the proposed upgrades is a new section of sidewalk on Neil Street between Edgebrook Drive and Kenyon Road.
Since 2001, Champaign has financed projects to fill gaps in the existing sidewalk system, focusing its attention on areas near schools and places where safety problems exist or where gaps are less than one block long. The city spent about $155,000 on such projects last year and has budgeted about $95,000 every other year for the next 10 years for additional projects.
The city also has a goal of constructing sidewalks along major roadways that currently do not have them, but there is a $2 million backlog for such projects, according city documents.
Residents who want sidewalks in their neighborhood have the option of requesting that they be built and splitting the cost with the city. But, according city documents, this program has never been used.
Urbana, which also has several older neighborhoods without sidewalks, offers a similar cost-sharing program. But Bill Gray, Urbana's Public Works director, said he hasn't seen it used in his 20 years with the city.
"People are usually resigned to the lack of sidewalks in these residential areas, or they're not willing to share in the cost (of building them)," he said.
Jeff Marino, a Champaign city planner, said some residents don't want sidewalks built in their neighborhoods because they don't want to give up a portion of their yard for a public right-of-way.
Garden Hills gets new sidewalks
But in some neighborhoods, residents welcome new sidewalks.
The Garden Hills subdivision just south of I-74 is another neighborhood that never had sidewalks. Built during the 1950s and 1960s, the neighborhood is home to some of the city's poorest residents.
Amy Revilla, president of the United Garden Hills Neighborhood Association, said that the city has taken steps toward installing more walkways in her neighborhood.
"Sidewalks have always been a concern of ours, mostly on Paula Drive, where there is a lot of foot traffic," Revilla said. "The city of Champaign has done a great job in doing what they can, but funding is always an issue."
Using about $200,000 in federal stimulus funds, the city built two blocks of new sidewalks along Paula Drive last year and made improvements to sidewalk ramps near Garden Hills Elementary School. The city plans to build another block of sidewalks along Paula later this year, Chris Sokolowski, a Champaign civil engineer, said in an email.
Need for those with disabilities
One purpose of sidewalks that may be overlooked by many is accessibility for people with disabilities.
Kramer, the former concrete supervisor, said the city was ahead of its time when it came to accessible infrastructure for the disabled. In 1987, Champaign passed a policy that required the installation of sidewalk access ramps whenever curbs or sidewalks were replaced.
Five years later, Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act, which required ramps to be installed throughout the country. Since the act was put in place, ramps have not been installed in neighborhoods that never had sidewalks to begin with.
Sokolowski said that the recent struggles of the economy and reductions in revenue have caused the city to cut back on its spending on capital-improvement projects and focus primarily on maintaining existing infrastructure.
The current financial climate makes it a challenge to keep up with needed repairs. Before his retirement in May, Kramer's sidewalk-repair crew was cut from eight workers to seven.
"Champaign is a leader in all infrastructure," Kramer said. "We've been very aggressive. But a city is like a homeowner: if you have money, then you can make the repairs. I expect there to be less money in the future, and less repairs.
(Photo by Dan Petrella of CU-CitizenAccess)
The University of Illinois' Board of Trustees is poised to vote Thursday on ending its long-running flight training program, but there is a chance the Institute of Aviation may have a new home.
The Urbana campus has provided flight training since the mid-1940's. Parkland College President Tom Ramage said he has been in talks with U of I officials about incorporating the aviation program into his school's curriculum. He said he is interested in keeping the institute alive, even if it is on a smaller scale.
"A private pilot licensure as well as commercial pilot licensure can happen without a degree or it can happen with a degree," he said. "We could go as far as the associate's degree, and partner as we do with many other programs with another university to do that degree competition."
Ramage said the prospect of Parkland adopting the flight program is largely dependent on what happens in the days ahead. He noted that discussions with the U of I about the institute have just started.
"I would imagine if the (University of Illinois) decides not to come and have a discussion with Parkland that they have good reason for it," Ramage said. "I don't know that I would beat down the door trying to figure out why."
On his end, Ramage said he would have to review the cost of maintaining the flight program, and the prospect of post-graduate jobs for aviation students.
A panel of U of I administrators and faculty made the recommendation in February to get rid of the Institute of Aviation as part of a series of cost-cutting measures. If that recommendation goes through with the vote by the Board of Trustees, then the flight program would end by 2014.
Staff and alumni from the Institute of Aviation plan to rally Thursday morning before the Board of Trustees meeting in Chicago.
Borders says it plans to end its operations by the end of September.
The Ann Arbor-based company announced plans Monday to sell off its assets after not receiving any bids to stay in business. At its peak in 2003, Borders ran more than 1,200 stores, but by the time the company filed for bankruptcy protection in February, that number was cut in half.
Technology played a big role in the company's demise, according to Dilip Sarwate, a professor in business administration at the University of Illinois.
"It's certainly difficult to compete with the likes of Amazon," Sarwate said. "I'm not sure this could be completely avoided. Fewer and fewer people are visiting bookstores. They are going to their computers and buying books."
But Lisa Bayer, who is the marketing director for the University of Illinois Press, said while technology did play a role in Border's downfall, it could have been avoided. She said Borders simply was not prepared for the onslaught of digital reading devices.
"They didn't position themselves to take advantage of various changes," Bayer said. "Barnes and Noble has the NOOK. Amazon developed the Kindle. Borders did really nothing."
Borders did come out with an e-reader last year, known as a Kobo. Produced by an electronic company in Canada, the Kobo will still be available to people who use the software to purchase and read books.
Up until Monday, the University of Illinois Press was still doing business with Borders. Bayer said the publishing company has been distancing itself from the retail giant over the last five years for various reasons, including "very questionable" decisions by the company's management.
Bayer said the University of Illinois Press' involvement with Borders was so minimal that she does not think the bookstore's failure will have a huge impact on the publishing company.
"It's very likely they hadn't even ordered any of our books in a while," she said, noting that many of the University of Illinois Press' books are scholarly journals. "We're not as much of an interest to them as some other kinds of publishers."
Of the nearly 400 Borders bookstores slated to close, three are in Champaign, Mattoon and Peoria.
Mary Beth Nebel runs an independent retail bookstore in Peoria called "I Know You Like a Book." She said she does not think Border's demise is a sign that other retailers are destined to fail.
"I hate to see any bookstore close," she said, reflecting on Border's closure. "I think independent bookstore like I have is much different than a chain store. It's more of a community-based place. I think more people will enjoy that sort of atmosphere."
With Peoria's Borders expected to close and a Barnes and Noble still running, Nebel said she has no intention of changing the way she runs her five-year-old business.
An arbitrator says Gov. Pat Quinn cannot cancel pay raises promised to state workers.
Arbitrator Edwin Benn on Tuesday ordered Quinn to start paying the 2 percent increase within 30 days with back pay. That's according to a copy of Benn's opinion provided by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
"These are hard fiscal times for the State - no doubt. However, when the State did not pay the increase," Benn stated. "The State did not keep its promise."
While the ruling comes as a victory for AFSCME, the issue is far from settled. Roughly 30,000 state employees were affected by the administration's decision to cancel the raises.
Gov. Quinn has said he had no choice since the legislature just did not allocate enough money in the budget to pay employees in 14 state agencies.
AFSCME appealed that decision to the arbitrator who last year worked out a labor deal with the governor to issue 2 percent pay increases starting July first of this year.
The arbitrator noted he has power to interpret only the labor deal, and it is up to the courts to decide if the state has the authority under the law and constitution to cancel the raises because the legislature did not to fund them.
A spokesman for the Gov. Quinn said the administration will appeal the arbitrator's ruling.
"Funding these raises would mean that these agencies would not be able to make payroll for the entire year, disrupting core services for the people of Illinois, including children, the elderly and those with special needs," Quinn spokesman Grant Klinzman wrote.
In the fall, AFSCME supported the governor over his opponent, state Sen. Bill Brady (R-Bloomington). The union contributed more than $200,000 to Quinn's campaign.
The Urbana City Council has narrowly upheld Mayor Laurel Prussing's veto of funding for the Champaign County Convention and Visitors Bureau. Council members voted 4-to-3 against overriding Prussing's veto of those funds.
Some council members say they wanted to find some funding for the agency, but also wanted more evidence of its performance. Members agreed the the department offers a valuable service, but not at a level of $72,000 a year. The mayor wants to use the money for two police positions instead.
Alderwoman Diane Marlin said she regrets the council was being forced to choose, saying Urbana needed both economic development and public safety.
CVB President and CEO Jayne DeLuce said she is looking forward to engaging in additional dialogue with the city, and finding a funding level that leaders are comfortable with.
"I think for a long time, there has been some opportunities where maybe there hadn't been engagment in the past," DeLuce said. "And I'm all willing to do that. Because we have the documentation of what we do. We have great things that we're trying to move forward with. But we do truly need countywide support to be able to do that, because it's really hard to be able to look at say, 'how do you move forward without one of the major stakeholders in the picture?"
DeLuce said the CVB now needs to do a better job of reporting its value to stakeholders, something she says wasn't done well before she arrived 18 months ago.
Alderman Charlie Smyth said discussions will start with $20,000 dollars of unallocated funds to the CVB, and build from there over the next few weeks. But he said any agreement will include expectations in terms of performance.
"I think there's sentiment on the council to fund CVB at some level that we think is appropriate that we can afford," Smyth said. "And at the same time, there's a legitimate concern that we get our money's worth from them."
Aldermen Dennis Roberts, Robert Lewis, Diane Marlin and Charlie Smyth supported Prussing by voting against the override, while Brandon Bowersox, Eric Jakobsson, and Heather Stevenson voted to override. Smyth said he hopes to find about $50,000 by time talk on CVB funding wraps up, likely sometime in August.
Marlin also said she was happy to see the Champaign County Board is considering a funding level of its own for the CVB at its meeting on Thursday.
The city council has also finalized a 1-percent tax on package liquor, along with hiking Urbana's hotel-motel tax from 5 to 6 percent. It's expected to raise $270,000 and pay for raises for the city's AFSCME and police unions. Only Alderwoman Heather Stevenson voted down the fee hikes, saying she was never contacted by Prussing about them, and did not have time to gauge their impact from local businesses.