Illinois Public Media News
The inventory of available houses and condos on the market in Champaign County is ample and growing. So says the head of the county's Association of Realtors - potentially good news for buyers, but he says sales are relatively slow.
May figures from the state realtors' organization shows 204 sales during the month, down 20% from May of 2010, with year-to-date sales down more than 15%.
Champaign County Association of Realtors president Max Mitchell says tax credits for first-time home buyers have come to an end, and since then buyers have been hesitant. "In 2011, with the interest rates being so favorable, it has gotten people out, but people are a little bit nervous simply because they've heard on the news that you have to have a higher credit score to qualify for a loan," Mitchell said.
Mitchell says the potential for higher required down-payments also has buyers and real estate observers worried. On the other hand, state figures suggest that home prices in Champaign County are holding their own compared to the rest of the state - the median sale price in May held nearly steady with the median price a year ago.
But Mitchell cautions that foreclosures are becoming more of a problem for the market. He says up to now, foreclosed homes have been a target for investors. "Now there are more foreclosed properties, and unfortunately, investors see that if you're going to own a foreclosed property, you aren't going to be able to resell it for a much higher amount in today's market.
In rural towns throughout Central Illinois, deciding where to attend worship service today could mean giving up youth activities or choir for a smaller service, or sacrificing a local connection to seek out parishioners of a similar age in a large congregation. As part of the series, 'Life on Route 150', Illinois Public Media's Jeff Bossert looks at rural churches, and what some in the region are doing to survive in today's climate.
(Photo by Jeff Bossert/WILL)
A state budget plan on the Governor's desk will undergo some changes.
Governor Pat Quinn says he will put his own stamp on a spending package after lawmakers, primarily in the House, put together a bipartisan document that cut spending levels in areas like education and health care.
Quinn says those are priorities for him and hinted he will shift spending to reflect that. "It's obviously a tough budget time," Quinn said. "But that's why we have a Governor. The legislature doesn't dictate everything. We will look at their outline and make changes we think are better."
Quinn has no authority to add money to the budget, but he could rework spending lines so that money is freed up for what he wants.
Lawmakers could agree with his changes or try to override him. However, they are not set to return to the capitol until the fall. Quinn expects to act on his changes next week, before the new fiscal year begins July 1.
The way Illinois taxes businesses has developed a bad reputation. A growing number of companies cite it as a hindrance. Now, though, the leaders of the state Senate and House are making an overhaul of the tax structure a priority.
Caterpillar CEO Doug Oberhelman sent a letter to Governor Pat Quinn in March outlining how Illinois lawmakers' actions were making it harder for him to withstand the heavy courtship of other states wanting the Peoria-based equipment-maker to relocate.
The letter set off a frenzy because Caterpillar's moving would be a major loss to Illinois. Oberhelman later refined his point and says the company has no plans to leave.
Nonetheless ... the focus was drawn to Illinois' business climate. Since then, there has been a drumbeat of headlines about this year's tax hike, and about subsequent tax breaks given to corporations like Motorola and Navistar to entice them to stay, which is why the House Speaker and Senate President formed a joint committee to consider overhauling the business tax structure.
Democratic Representative John Bradley of Marion will be a co-chair. "The idea being here that we're going to try to make Illinois keep up with the times and be handling the corporate tax structure that is efficient, fair, balanced and competitive manner," Bradley said.
Hearings will be held this summer, but times and locations haven't yet been set.
State construction projects will go on without further trepidation. Senators approved funding for them Wednesday, and at the same time knocked down their own pay a bit as they returned to the Capitol for the first time since the end of the regular session.
The threat had been looming that roadwork and all other ongoing infrastructure projects would need to shut down, including the project to rebuild Lincoln Hall on the University of Illinois' Urbana campus. The legislature adjourned in May without voting to pay for them.
Senate Democrats had tried holding back the $18 billion as a way to pressure the House to approve more money for education and human services, but they ultimately backed down from those demands. Governor Pat Quinn says that ensures thousands of construction workers will keep their jobs.
But Democratic Senate President John Cullerton says concerns remain with the budget, which is on Quinn's desk. "We will take up the shortcomings of the House budget that we did pass, when we come back perhaps in the fall, most likely in January," Cullerton said.
It's relatively insignificant, but about $500,000 will be saved via another measure headed to Quinn. It freezes elected officials' pay and requires they take 12 furlough days. Legislators' base salary will be about $65,000, though some earn more for extra duties.
The next fiscal budget for the city of Champaign will include two percent raises for non-union employees.
Those staff members didn't get raises in the current fiscal year. The city council quickly signed off on the budget plan Tuesday night.
Raises for Champaign's union workers, such as those with AFSCME, are unclear since they are in contract negotiations. And the city's firefighters union is waiting on a decision from an arbitrator. City Finance Director Richard Schnuer said it is difficult to gauge what impact the non-bargaining staff raises will have, but he said each citywide salary increase of one percent is worth about $400,000 in personnel costs.
Schnuer said some unanticipated increases, like the cost of snow removal, were factored into the budget.
"As the year progressed, and the negotiations progressed, we realized that we were going to have increases," he said. "So the adopted budget does reflect the increases that were agreed to by the council and unions."
The city council's earlier action to restore three positions at the police department is included in the budget, but two of those positions are currently vacant. Next month, the council is expected to discuss the future of those jobs, along with potential new sources of revenue.
Cutting those positions would mean shutting down the police front desk during overnight hours.
Members of a health care advocacy group are urging Congress to avoid touching Social Security as a bipartisan panel looks to reduce the national deficit.
Champaign County Health Care Consumers has sent a letter to Senator Dick Durbin, speculating that his 'Gang of Six' is still looking at cuts to Social Security. The group's Medicare Task Force says a myth is being spread on Capitol Hill that the program adds to the deficit. Thomas Rohrer is a member of the group's Medicare Task Force. He said he is concerned about any efforts to privatize Social Security.
"The stock market crashed a couple years ago, and people lost a lot of money," Rorher said. "And if social security people lose their benefits - where would they go? What would happen? At least the government provides a safety net."
The consumers' group also opposes any talk of raising the retirement age from 67 to 69. Rohrer said he has friends who simply can't stay in their current jobs until that age, and worries about age discrimination for anyone trying to find new work.
The Health Care Consumers' Executive Director Claudia Lenhoff criticized AARP, noting that the agency is willing to consider raising the retirement age. She said it is 'selling out its constituents' as a result.
"They talk out of both sides of their mouth, saying that they want to protect social security and that making cuts to social security benefits and raising the retirement age is a cut - is important for saving social security," Lenhoff said. "They say that everybody recognizes that social security retirement age must be raised. Really? Everybody?"
Lenhoff noted that the federal government has borrowed $2.6 trillion from the Social Security Reserve Fund.
Even though small towns may not have big crime problems compared to larger areas, they still need law enforcement. As part of the series "Life on Route 150," Illinois Public Media's Sean Powers visited one town that's keeping its local police presence intact despite the state's economic challenges, and another town that recently dismantled its police force to save money.
(Photo by Sean Powers/WILL)
State employees in Illinois have settled into their health insurance choices - at least for the next three months.
But a University of Illinois professor says the controversy over the state's attempt to change providers will only resurface as September 17th nears.
Law professor Richard Kaplan said the resolution that let people keep their existing Health Alliance arrangements is only a temporary fix while the courts, the Quinn administration and the state legislature play what he calls a three-level game of chess.
Kaplan said the thousands of state workers and retirees will need to pay special attention to the wrangling in Springfield before the emergency contracts expire.
"There are several parallel tracks that (Judge Brian Otwell's) opinion might get overturned, the governor might sign the two-year keep everything as it is legislation, the contracts may be completely re-negotiated," Kaplan said. "This is very unsettling because this is not some trivial fringe benefit. This is a huge part of people's compensation and it's probably one of the most intimate aspects of their employment."
Kaplan said if Governor Pat Quinn decides to veto legislation to keep the current health insurance contracts for two more years, that could set up a game of chicken where lawmakers could override the veto and nullify the new contracts.
Kaplan said many other large employers will be reconsidering their health insurance options in the months ahead in response to last year's federal health care overhaul.
Faced with waning revenue coupled with concerns over state funding, Decatur's United Way has set some new priorities.
The United Way earlier this month decided to eliminate two of its programs - First Call for Help and AFL-CIO Community Services. While both programs are important, the agency's executive director, Denise Smith, said those services were not meeting the greatest community need. The agency also concluded that its AFL-CIO Community Services program saw too narrow a focus through union workers and their families.
Smith said 90-percent of comments from the public supported those changes.
"As state funding and federal funding continues to dwindle, you know, United Way's importance is very strong in the community," Smith said. "So we hope to continue making it a better place for all of us to live, work, and play."
Before this month, Smith said the United Way had no full-time staff devoted solely to its campaign. Over the next five years, the agency will seek the help of a resource development professional, a grant writer, and an endowment director.
The last two positions will not rely on additional resources since the grant writer will be self supporting, and the endowment professional will be funded from the United Way's current endowment.
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