Illinois Public Media News

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - July 26, 2011

Post Offices in East Central Illinois Up for Review

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.

Categories: Business, Economics

AP - Illinois Public Media News - July 26, 2011

Durbin Hits GOP for Debt Limit ‘Brinkmanship

(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.

Categories: Economics, Government, Politics

AP - Illinois Public Media News - July 25, 2011

Quinn Returns from Trip to Israel

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.


AP - Illinois Public Media News - July 25, 2011

Gov. Daniels Seeks Disaster Status for Vermillion, Wayne Counties

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.


WILL - Illinois Public Media News - July 22, 2011

Convention and Visitors Bureau Receives $15,000 from County Board

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.

Categories: Economics, Government, Politics

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - July 22, 2011

Some Champaign Neighborhoods Leave Pedestrians Out in the Street

(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)

Categories: Economics, Transportation

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - July 21, 2011

University of Illinois Votes to End Aviation Program

University of Illinois Votes to End Aviation Program

The University of Illinois will end its Institute of Aviation.


AP - Illinois Public Media News - July 21, 2011

Commission to Oversee Illinois Charter Schools

Illinois is getting a commission to decide when charter schools should be created and then make sure they're running properly.

The commission gives advocates a new path for approval of charter schools instead of having to go through local school boards or the State Board of Education.

Gov. Pat Quinn signed the commission into law Wednesday. He will submit a slate of potential members and then the State Board of Education decides who actually serves on the commission.

Charter schools are public schools that are exempt from some state laws so they can try new education methods or pursue particular goals. Advocates say officials have been slow to approve new charter schools.


AP - Illinois Public Media News - July 21, 2011

Ill. Lacks Money to Help Low-Income Keep Cool

Facing a big drop in federal money to help poor people keep their power on, the state of Illinois decided earlier this year to use the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program only in winter this year.

That's leaving potentially tens of thousands of people without extra money to keep their power on or get it reconnected during a devastating heat wave.

Spokeswoman Marcelyn Love says the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity had little choice. Otherwise it might have run out of money during a brutal Illinois winter.

That doesn't comfort people like Cynthia Littlefield of Paxton. She's unemployed and her family has a $198 electricity bill from Ameren it can't pay.

Ameren spokesman Leigh Morris says the utility won't turn off power for non-payment during heat advisories.

Categories: Economics, Government, Politics

AP - Illinois Public Media News - July 21, 2011

Ill. Unemployment Rises for Second Straight Month

Unemployment in Illinois increased to 9.2 percent in June, the second straight month the state jobless rate increased.

The state Department of Employment Security today laid part of the blame on weak consumer confidence they said was hindering the national economy.

The national unemployment rate hit also 9.2 percent in June. That was up from 9.1 percent.

The employment security department said the number of people in Illinois out of work and looking increased by 18,900 to 603,700.

The biggest job losses were in the government and educational and health services sectors. Both shed 3,500 jobs for the month.

The leisure and hospitality sector added 3,900 jobs with the start of summer.

Categories: Economics
Tags: economy

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