Illinois Public Media News

AP - Illinois Public Media News - December 30, 2010

Quinn Signs New Pension Law, Daley Disappointed

Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn has signed legislation affecting the pension system for law enforcement officers and firefighters.

Quinn signed the law Thursday. His office says it will stabilize pension systems and protect retirement benefits for the officers and firefighters. However Chicago Mayor Richard Daley says he's disappointed Quinn signed the law, saying it will burden Chicago taxpayers.

The new law will affect those hired on or after Jan. 1. Quinn's office also says it will help municipalities fund pensions.

Daley's office says the new law will increase the city's annual police and fire pension contribution from an projected $309 million in 2015 to about $856 million. The new law normalizes retirement ages, sets a maximum pension and begins monthly cost-of-living adjustments at age 60 for retirees and survivors.

Categories: Economics, Government, Politics

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - December 28, 2010

Dynegy to Shut Down Oakwood Power Generation Facility

Energy company Dynegy will be closing its Vermilion Power facility near Oakwood by the end of March.

Company spokesman David Byford said mothballing the more than 50-year old facility largely comes down to economics.

"We have higher fuel costs at Vermilion because the plant is not located on a rail line," Byford said. "And that would be coupled with market conditions that would include reduced power demand and lower power prices that don't favor continued operations."

During a year-long review, Byford said company heads looked at options for the plant, including alternative fuel supply arrangements. But he said the price of fuel for supplying the plant with its coal also proved to be too much.

"We took a year exploring numerous options for the plant that included looking at alternative fuel supply arrangements," Byford said. "But in the end, we're still faced with poor plant economics."

Byford said the plant is no longer being used all the time, and he said a regional power grid ensures a reliable power supply to the area. The precise closure date for the plant is not known, but it is expected near the end of the first quarter of 2011. The company said the next step is for Dynegy to develop plans for suspending operations in a safe and reliable manner. The plant has about 50 employees, and Byford said it is not yet known whether they will be offered jobs elsewhere in the company.

Categories: Economics, Energy, Technology

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - December 23, 2010

Unemployment Down in November in Illinois Metro Areas

Once again, unemployment is down from a year ago, in all 12 of Illinois' major metropolitan areas.

The Illinois Department of Employment Security reported that November was the third month in a row that unemployment has declined in all 12 metro areas from a year ago. It's the fourth month of such declines for the Champaign-Urbana and Danville areas, and the fifth consecutive month of declines for the Decatur area.

In Champaign-Urbana, the November unemployment rate was 8.2 percent, down from 8.9 percent. In Danville the rate was 11 percent, down from 11.7 percent, and in Decatur, the rate was also 11 percent, down from 12.1 percent.

November unemployment ranged from 7.1 percent in the Bloomington-Normal area to a high of 13.7 percent percent in Rockford.

Figures for 18 east-central Illinois counties showed jobless numbers improved from a year ago in every county but Douglas. November unemployment for Douglas County was 9.2 percent, up from 9 percent percent a year ago.

While the unemployment rates are better than a year ago, the total numbers of non-farm jobs have gone down in Danville and Decatur, and are unchanged in Champaign-Urbana.

Statewide, only Rockford and the Illinois side of the Quad Cities showed an increase in non-farm jobs from November of last year. IDES spokesman Tom Austin says the unemployment rate and the survey of non-farm jobs are compiled separately and do not always correlate. He says that among the contributing factors are workers who find jobs outside of their county or metro area.

Illinois' statewide unemployment rate was 9.2 percent. That's just below the 9.3 percent national average.

(Additional reporting from the Associated Press)

Categories: Economics, Government, Politics

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - December 21, 2010

Huston Patterson Employees Continue Workers’ Strike

A marathon strike at Decatur's Huston Patterson plant has dragged on for months, and there does not appear to be an agreement in sight between union officials and the printing company.

Workers began picketing on June 30 outside the company's headquarters to protest contract changes that took affect in August after their old contract expired. The modified contract includes a 15-percent wage cut, mandatory overtime, and reductions in healthcare benefits. Pat Shields is president of the Graphic Communications Conference International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local 219M. He said many of the picketing workers have a 15-to-30 year history with the company and have no intention of standing down.

"Our only demand is to sit down and negotiate," Shields said. "We want to talk, and we have no pre-conditions others than let's sit and talk."

Shields contended that the company refuses to negotiate directly with the union, which is why a federal mediator is in place to open up dialogue between the two sides.

William Kaucher is with the District Council 4, the umbrella organization that oversees Decatur's printers union. Kaucher said he does not understand why the company's president and CEO, Thomas Kowa, will not negotiate with union members in Decatur. Kaucher said he successfully worked with Kowa a few years ago on a contract for employees at the Sigma Graphics printing company in Ottawa, Il., and negotiations over that deal lasted a day.

"He claims financial hardship," Kaucher said. "The guy's can understand that right now, but why would you change work rules that have been in place when it doesn't affect the bottom line? What this comes down to is this is more dictating than negotiating."

Kowa declined a request for comment.

Huston Patterson has replaced workers who are on strike, but Kaucher said any new contract would have to guarantee that those employees regain their jobs.

The number of workers on strike has dropped in recent months, but union officials say they will continue picketing for as long as possible. On Tuesday, the United Council Staff Union of Illinois donated $5,000 to the striking workers. Other strike funds through local unions and contributions from individuals have been used during the last several months to support the Huston Patterson employees.

Categories: Business, Economics

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - December 18, 2010

UI Leaders Want Extension Service to Establish Central Campus Location

University of Illinois administrators want its Extension service to develop a campus-level location to better promote its mission and fundraising.

The campus review of Extension has been completed, in a year when some offices have closed and jobs have been cut. But the report does not suggest eliminating any more jobs. In the latest of cost cutting measures entitled 'Stewarding Excellence', Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs Richard Wheeler said Extension should consider moving from its current location within the school of ACES to a campus level position.

The letter co-signed by Vice President and Interim Chancellor Robert Easter also suggests that would increase U of I Extension's visibility and opportunities for funding. But Wheeler says a lot has yet to be determined, including making sure that any further re-structuring be done while considering USDA regulations.

"Making sure that we are staying within the permissible ranges of that extensive regulatory system, and the funding mechanism for that matter," Wheeler said. "Most of extension money comes from outside the campus, and will be very crucial. But I don't think any of us can anticipate exactly what organization will emerge at the end."

The 'next steps' for U of I Extension also asks that its Interim Dean Robert Hoeft and Associate Chancellor Bill Adams generate a plan to implement these recommendations, which include combining the functions of Public Engagement and Extension into one office to 'bring coherence to an outreach portfolio that has traditionally been diffuse and poorly aligned.'

They are to develop a preliminary report by early spring. Wheeler says there's no clear-cut model from other states for running the extension service. He said the present model has just worked for Illinois, since the programs involve more than agriculture.


WILL - Illinois Public Media News - December 17, 2010

Wind Turbine Project Gets Smaller As Urbana Residents Learn About Energy Plan

Wind Turbine Project Gets Smaller As Urbana Residents Learn About Energy Plan

A plan to generate renewable energy by constructing three wind turbines on the University of Illinois' South Farms site has been scaled down to one turbine located on the corner of Old Church Road and Philo Road.

The project is estimated to cost $4.5 million, and the university said it can only afford to support one tower with that budget.

"It's unlikely we'll be able to do more than one at this time," said Morgan Johnston, the University of Illinois' sustainability and transportation coordinator.


WILL - Illinois Public Media News - December 14, 2010

Carle Foundation Hospital Prepares for New Addition

The Illinois Health Facilities and Services Review Board has given Carle Foundation Hospital the green light to build a nine-story patient bed tower that will house the hospital's Heart and Vascular institute.

The $200 million project has been on hold for more than a year because of the sluggish economy, but is now moving forward through the financial backing of bonds and private donations.

Included in the new tower will be work spaces for cardiovascular, neuroscience, and intensive care services to better address emergent, acute, and chronic conditions. The new tower will also include 136 single patient rooms that will replace inadequate rooms from older buildings on the hospital campus that date back to the 1960s and 1970s.

"There is dedicated family space in each of those rooms, and lots and lots of natural light coming in through," said Stephanie Beever, the hospital's vice president of Business Development. "There's lots of glass in this building that our research has shown will actually help patients improve, get better quicker, and hopefully get home quicker."

Revised construction costs for the patient bed tower are $17 million less than what was originally projected a couple of years ago. Officials from Carle estimate that the tower will have a $100 million impact on the local economy.

Up to 250 workers will be hired to work on the constrution of the new tower. ManorCare nursing home in Urbana will be torn down in January to make room for the new patient tower with construction set to begin in March. The project is scheduled to completed in June 2013. It will be located on Coler Street between Park and Church Streets.

Categories: Economics, Health
Tags: economy, health

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - December 14, 2010

Budget Limitations Damper U of I’s Ability to Catch Copper Thieves

The theft of more than $10,000 worth of copper building materials taken last week from the University of Illinois' Natural History Building has prompted university police to look at efforts to protect its other copper-rich buildings.

Skip Frost, the Patrol Division Commander with the University's police department, said the incident was the largest of its kind on campus in recent memory. Frost said the university is in talks with building contractors to figure what can be done to prevent more thefts from happening.

"What we'd like to do and what we're able to do are two different things," Frost explained. "There are so many things that could be done, including securing (copper) in a better fashion, having better key card access, and improving locks, but you can put all those things in there, that does not mean crime is not going to occur."

Copper prices went up in November, and have continued to rise this month, reaching more than $4.00 per pound. Ameren spokesperson Brianne Lindemann said she expects there will be more thefts from homes and businesses as commodity prices for copper go up.

"You need to secure any building that you have," Lindemann cautioned. "You definitely want to keep some lights on. You just want to make sure that those buildings look like somebody has been in there.

Tags: crime, economy

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - December 08, 2010

University of Illinois Officials Investigating New Revenue Options

University of Illinois officials on the Urbana campus are moving forward with a series of revenue-generating measures after studying a Stewarding Excellence @ Illinois report released last spring.

The report proposes a host of options to improve the university's financial standing, including raising overall enrollment so that more out-of-state students who pay higher tuition can be admitted. University spokeswoman Robin Kaler noted that the U of I will tread carefully in its efforts to boost revenue by looking at how doing something accepting more students could affect the university's commitment to quality education.

"If you cannot maintain the quality, there's absolutely no reason to do something like that," she said. "Every decision we make about what to implement, what not to implement will have that consideration first."

The Stewarding Excellence report also suggested setting up a system in which every faculty member would be required to submit their teaching, research, and public engagement contributions in an annual report that would be factored into the evaluation of promotion and tenure.

"It just seems unwise to tie any kind of financial metrics based on instruction, or other revenue generating activities into the academic evaluation system," she said.

University of Illinois Interim Vice President and Chancellor Robert Easter said he encourages different departments on campus to find research areas where they can collaborate, and work to develop grant-funded research professorships.

Easter also said the U of I will create a faculty-led commission to explore other income-producing activities like professional development training programs and partnerships with academic institutions in other countries.

Categories: Economics, Education

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - December 08, 2010

Talks Continue About Plan for New High School in Champaign

The search for a site in Champaign to house a new high school continued Tuesday night in the second public forum with members of the Champaign school board.

The Unit 4 School District is considering seven spots in the city to build the new school to accommodate a growing student population and expand educational resources. The potential sites includes four plots of land near the north end of Prospect Avenue. Two are west of First Street and south of Windsor Avenue, and one is west of I-57 in Northwest Champaign.

The project, which aims to replace Central High School, would be funded with more than three million dollars in facilities sales tax money coupled with a tax referendum of at least $50 million dollars that would have to be approved by voters.

Jamar Brown's 9-year-old son is poised to one day attend Central High. Brown said with an influx of students filling up the school's classrooms, he is worried about the quality of education.

"Yes, the classes should be mixed, but just when you have 30 students, it's very hard for the teacher to effectively teach all of them," Brown said.

Brown said he is considering sending his son to a private high school unless a larger public school is built in the district. School Board President Dave Tomlinson said the district does not intend to eliminate any of the seven prospective sites from its list just yet. He also said that if plans for a new school go forward, Central High will not be torn down.

"There's never even been a discussion about we're going to get rid of that as a Unit 4 building," Tomlinson said. "We're going to build a new high school, and we're going to re-use the Central High School facility as something else for the district."

Questions about the project can be e-mailed to CentralComments@ChampaignSchools.org.

(Photo by Sean Powers/WILL)


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