Illinois Public Media News
More than three dozen Illinois mayors signed a letter Friday urging President Obama and members of Congress to take action on the nation's debt ceiling crisis, or risk another recession.
They say if lawmakers don't reach an agreement on a debt-limit solution before the Aug. 2 deadline, basic city services that rely on federal funding may not get supported. At that time, the Treasury Department will be forced to prioritize its spending commitments.
St. Joseph Mayor B.J. Hackler said he is concerned about highway construction projects that could be put on hold in his town if the debt ceiling is not raised.
"So, if people can't get to your town, they're sure as hell ain't going to build anything," Hackler said. "It got to be resolved. They got to unite together in some fashion to solve this problem."
Hackler also expressed concern about funding for water and sewer projects in St. Joseph.
Meanwhile, Danville Mayor Scott Eisenhauer said he is concerned about the impact on Social Security and Medicare payments. He said he is also worried federal funding for Danville's Mass Transit District could be jeopardized.
"Right now we are experiencing 50,000 riders a month," Eisenhauer explained. "If in fact that program were to be reduced or halted in any way, how will those individuals get to places where they need to be?"
Champaign Mayor Don Gerard said not raising the debt ceiling could put a damper on job growth and economic development in his city.
"You know, trying to get our job growth back up and our economic development, I think that's just one of the key factors," Gerard said. "It's hard to move forward with recruiting new business if we're not sure we can keep our roads and our infrastructure in shape."
Others mayors to sign the letter included Rahm Emanuel of Chicago and Laurel Prussing of Urbana.
In a statement, the Treasury Department did not provide details on the bills it would pay should the government default on its debt obligations. President Barack Obama on Friday urged Democrats and Republicans in the Senate to come together on a plan that can pass the House and that he can sign into law.
(With additional reporting by Pam Dempsey of CU-CitizenAccess)
About a dozen residents from Joann Dorsey Homes and Dunbar Court protested outside of the Champaign County Housing Authority Wednesday to bring to light the troubles they have had finding a new place to live.
Their protest had the intended effect - a meeting with housing authority officials within the next week or so and increased help to find a place to live.
Earlier this year, the housing authority received federal approval to demolish the two apartment complexes as part of redevelopment plan to rebuild larger, mixed-income properties. The complexes have provided housing for low-to-moderate income residents and have been managed by the housing authority.
The properties make up about 90 units of the housing authority's public housing stock and are the oldest public housing properties in the area.
As part of redevelopment plans, the housing authority issued Section 8 vouchers to the residents in June. The vouchers, which provide subsidies for low income families and individuals, are used to rent properties nationwide from private landlords.
"We're out here today because one month ago we were given Section 8 vouchers, (yet) only five residents at Dorsey have been able to find housing," said Margaret Neil, a resident of Joann Dorsey Homes and a commissioner with the housing authority board.
Public housing residents said that finding a place to live under the new payment standards is difficult. Residents also say some landlords have ill conceived notions of people who live in public housing, and do not want to rent to those with Section 8 vouchers. They also say some housing units simply don't have enough space, or do not offer rent that is low enough to meet voucher standards.
"Most of the residents at Joann Dorsey I know that have found places, it's because their sister was renting from that landlord," Neil said. "They haven't gone out cold turkey and found a place. For most of the residents at Joann Dorsey and Dunbar, I think are from Chicago. So, they don't have those ties in the community."
Section 8 vouchers are known as "housing choice" vouchers and allow clients a chance to choose where they want to live. The vouchers cover application fees, security payments, and a certain amount of a tenant's rent based on income. For those with any type of income, the client is required to pay 30 percent of their monthly income toward housing costs. For those without income, the housing authority will pay 100 percent of the housing costs.
The client first finds a place and the housing authority then must approve the unit by calculating the client's affordability rate and then inspecting the unit.
"When we heard about, everybody was happy because they was going to tear (it) down and rebuild again," said Cleo Clay recently, president of the Joann Dorsey Homes resident council. "They were supposed to find relocation for everybody up here ... but the problem is houses we seem to be looking for is not affordable for us."
Clay has lived on and off at Joann Dorsey Homes for more than 20 years. It took Clay four tries before she found a place to live - which was pending approval from the housing authority.
"Everybody is getting frustrated and mad," she said, because the landlords are not accepting the vouchers.
The Champaign County Housing Authority has issued about 1,500 Section 8 vouchers and pay $9 million annually in rent, said Edward Bland, executive director of the Champaign County Housing Authority.
Up until last year, the housing authority paid 110 percent of the fair market rent in the Champaign-Urbana area. To conserve money, however, the board voted to reduce that amount to 95 percent, Bland said.
"We want to make sure that we are being fiscally responsible," Bland said. "There have been several housing authorities throughout this country that have run into a financial situation where they had to take families off the program because they were over spending money in the section 8 program."
The fair market rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Champaign-Urbana, according to federal housing standards is $713. Under the new rental payments, the housing authority will only pay no more than $688 for that apartment.
"As of June of last year, they effectively made it not feasible from a financial standpoint to rent to Section 8 (clients)," said local landlord Antwuan Neely.
Neely owns more than 100 properties in Champaign-Urbana - mostly single-family houses. He said he leases about one-third of his properties to Section 8 tenants.
At 110 percent, the former payment standard gave low-to-moderate income families more housing options, Neely said.
"But by reducing the payment standards, it seriously affected those families," he said. "Yes you still can find places in Champaign-Urbana, but with the economy as it is, now you have a lot more people looking for the same type of properties."
Of the 90 or so families in the two public housing complexes, 20 of them have found new places to live, Bland said.
"We will not be forcing any families to move before they are ready to move because we want to make sure every family is comfortable with where they want to go," he said.
Bland said that the housing authority held more than a dozen meetings since last year to work with residents and will continue to meet with them to alleviate their concerns. He said his department will not move forward with tearing down the apartments until all the tenants move out.
"We realize that for some they may need some extra help, and that's what the housing authority is here for," he said. "We're setting up additional meetings with the families ... within the next week or so (to) once again to let those families know they aren't being pushed out."
For the protesters, a meeting is just what they wanted.
"We hope that by picketing down here today, the housing authority will realize that the help they promised - we're serious, we want that help, we will be your face until we get that help, we hope that a meeting will come out of picketing," Neil said.
Late Wednesday, Bland met with Neil to discuss further assistance. He said that the housing authority will increase the value of the Section 8 voucher from its current 95 percent to its previous 110 percent for Joann Dorsey Homes and Dunbar Court tenants "for relocation purposes".
He said that housing authority officials still plan to meet with residents to discuss assistance.
Informal talks continue that may allow Parkland College to take over the University of Illinois' Institute of Aviation in three years.
The U of I's Board of Trustees voted last week to shut it down, once current students complete the program in 2014. The Institute's Interim Director, Tom Emanuel, met Wednesday with Interim Chancellor Robert Easter for what he calls a preliminary conversation.
Emanuel said the next step is for administrators at both schools to meet, and see if Parkland's finances will allow such a transfer. Those meetings likely will not happen until the fall semester starts. But Emanuel said Parkland could offer courses in addition to flight training.
"I do know Parkland has some interest in looking at a broader aviation program that would include maybe some other things, even conceivably, something with aviation mechanics... I just heard that through the grapevine literally," Emanuel said. "But it makes sense. Aviation is the second largest money producer in the state of Illinois after agriculture."
Easter said he holds out hope that flight training would have a future locally beyond 2014.
"Having a quality program locally available for students coming to the University of Illinois with an interest in learning flying skills," he said. "Proceeding to certification (with Parkland) would be a real plus. And so our interest is if there's a way we can facilitate that, as I told the Board (of Trustees) last week, we will do that."
Easter called last Thursday's decision to close the Institute one of the tougher days in his role of administrator, but said it was the right one to allow for the growth of other programs on the Urbana campus. Administrators say closing Aviation would save $750,000 in a program suffering from declining enrollment.
Emanuel said any arrangement with Parkland would have to be done on smaller scale, since Parkland is a two-year institution and doesn't have the authority to offer a baccalaureate degree. And Emanuel said the Institute's aircraft belong to the U of I's Board of Trustees, and cannot be transferred to a community college. But Emanuel said he believes some arrangement could be made for Parkland to use the planes if everything else falls into place.
Two Illinois agencies will get more than $1.1 million in federal grant money to prevent homelessness among military veterans.
The grants from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs will serve about 340 vets and their families who are homeless or don't have a permanent home.
An agency called Thresholds in Chicago will get $439,722 and Chicago-based Volunteers of America in Illinois will get $719,400.
The money is among nearly $60 million the department will award to 85 nonprofit agencies in 40 states and Washington, D.C.
The Supportive Services for Veteran Families programs provides money to community agencies to help with such services as getting Veterans Administration benefits, and paying rent, utilities or moving costs.
Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn wants to negotiate with unions to keep labor reforms at Chicago's McCormick Place convention center.
But he also says he and top lawmakers are ready to bring legislators back to Springfield in September to fine tune any necessary legislation.
Quinn met Tuesday with Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the state's four legislative leaders about ways to keep the work rule changes.
A federal judge ruled in March that many of the labor reforms lawmakers wanted at McCormick were illegal because they went beyond the terms of union contracts.
The judge also ruled legislators overturned collective bargaining rights in violation of the National Labor Relations Act.
Some conventions have pulled out of the city because of the high cost to host events at McCormick.
The financially-struggling U.S. Postal Service is putting thousands of post offices under review for possible closure - including many in east central Illinois.
Two of them are Champaign's Campustown post office and the facility inside the U of I's Altgeld Hall. But most are rural post offices in some of the smallest communities. They include Bondville, Dewey, Ivesdale, Penfield, Royal and Longview in Champaign County as well as Armstrong, Collison, Indianola and Muncie in Vermilion County and DeLand in Piatt County.
Valerie Welsch is with the post office's district headquarters in Saint Louis. Welsch said being on the list does not necessarily mean closure -customers who use those post offices will be given questionnaires before any closing decision is made.
"The local operations manager will make a determination whether they think that's possible," she said. "If they do, that'll get forwarded to the district manager. If he feels it's warranted, then it will go to our national headquarters in Washington, DC for a final decision."
Welsch said if a post office is tagged for closure, there is another 30-day public appeal process. She said the Postal Service is seeing more people use online and other retail services for things like stamps. Welsch also said post offices in communities are sometimes replaced by community postal boxes.
(With additional reporting from The Associated Press)
U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) says House Republicans are pushing the country to the brink of an economic disaster. But with a debt limit deadline just over a week away, the Illinois Democrat himself opposes a plan that could temporarily avert default.
Durbin Monday talked of the dire consequences to interest rates, if no debt limit deal is reached.
"It is a decision by the Republicans to push us to absolute brinkmanship here and to risk this economy and the jobs that are associated with it," Durbin said at an unrelated press conference in Chicago.
Durbin said he wants a compromise. But he flatly dismissed Republican House Speaker John Boehner's short-term bill to cut spending by about $1.2 billion and extend the debt ceiling for about six months.
"This is exactly the wrong time to do this, with economies failing all around Europe, with our own economy under attack by those giving credit reports, we should not be lurching from one political and economic crisis to another," Durbin said.
Boehner's measure could come to a vote on Wednesday. House GOP leaders have scheduled a second vote Thursday on a balanced-budget constitutional amendment long favored by rank-and-file conservatives.
Durbin said he has been in contact with Democratic leader Harry Reid, who's pushing a budget-cutting plan that would extend the debt limit through 2012 - past next year's election.
With an Aug. 2 deadline rapidly closing, Congress and the White House had limited options to avoid a potential government default that could send the already weak economy into a damaging swoon.
Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn is back from a week-long trip to Israel.
Quinn raved about the trip Monday. He says he hopes he can bring businesses from Israel to Illinois. He also wants to export some of the state's technology there in the areas of biotechnology and water conservation.
He says there is "great opportunity'' for renewed and even greater partnerships with Israel. Illinois has trade representatives there.
While he was there, Quinn signed a sister lakes agreement between Lake Michigan and Lake Kinneret, also known as the Sea of Galilee. He says there is great potential in that partnership, which could mean jobs and research.
Quinn's trip was paid for by the Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago.
Gov. Mitch Daniels has asked President Barack Obama to add Vermillion and Wayne counties to 32 counties approved for a federal disaster declaration last month.
If Monday's request is approved, state and local governments and certain non-profit organizations in the two additional counties would be eligible to apply for federal aid to pay 75 percent of the approved cost of debris removal, emergency services and repairing damaged public facilities such as roads and buildings.
The disaster declaration Obama issued last month covers damage from flooding, tornados and straight-line winds between April 19 and June 6.
Wayne County is along the Ohio state line and Vermillion is along the Illinois state line.
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.
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