Illinois Public Media News

AP - Illinois Public Media News - May 13, 2011

Education Overhaul Sent to Quinn’s Desk

In a year when Wisconsin lawmakers have clamped down on union members' bargaining rights, Illinois legislators passed a measure that makes it harder for teachers unions to go on strike.

But in Illinois, that happened with the unions' consent.

The unions, as well as education advocates, school boards and administrators all signed on to the carefully negotiated measure that was passed by the house Thursday and is now on its way to the governor's desk.

Representative Jehan Gordon, a Peoria Democrat, said it's a first step toward ensuring Illinois children receive the best education.

"Many of the things that we are seeing around the country right now, you find it very difficult for governmental bodies and labor to come together, at the table, and have some of these hard, difficult conversations and find a collective compromise," Gordon said.

Schools will be able to more easily dump poor-performing teachers, even if they have seniority. Teachers will have to earn ratings of "proficient" and "excellent" in order to earn tenure. And the package allows Chicago Public Schools to lengthen the school day and requires teachers and districts make their contract negotiations public during bargaining disputes.

The bill took months to negotiate. Advance Illinois, an education policy group made up of business and civic leaders, was pushing for many of the changes governing seniority and tenure, as was the out-of-state group Stand for Children.

Robin Steans, Advance Illinois' executive director, said the legislation is significant nationally both for what it mandates and for the fact that it was worked out with the support of teachers unions.

"I'm getting calls from my colleagues all around the country about this," said Steans, who was in Springfield for the vote. "They want to see the language. They want to know how we got at this....[Illinois is] part of a bigger national conversation. I think it's fair to say we just jumped to the head of the pack. We got really good, hard stuff done but we got it done without a lot of drama and a lot of noise and a lot of fighting."

Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis helped write the bill, but she says unions essentially had a gun to their head. If they hadn't come to the table, things could have been much worse, Lewis said.

"There's Wisconsin, there's Indiana, there's Pennsylvania, Ohio," Lewis said. "This is going nationwide. We're trying to ameliorate some of the worst parts of what that bill had."

The state's two largest unions lauded the negotiated legislation as "good for kids, fair to adults" when it was first unveiled in mid-April. The state senate passed it then 59-0.

But after initially agreeing to support the law, the more strident Chicago Teachers Union now is balking over what some call technicalities but what Lewis says are attacks on collective bargaining rights.

"We want to be a part of what helps kids," Lewis said. "But the attack on our collective bargaining does not help kids. Anyone who says it does is not being honest."

Lewis is upset about a provision that could impact a lawsuit the union has against Chicago Public Schools over massive teacher layoffs last summer. She's also fighting over how many CTU members would be needed to authorize a strike. Negotiations to resolve those issues are continuing.

Chicago mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel praised the legislation, as did U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

Governor Pat Quinn has said he would sign the historic legislation.


AP - Illinois Public Media News - May 12, 2011

Audit: Some State Employees Overpaid by $25K, More

Four Illinois state employees whose work was split among agencies were overpaid by $77,000 the last two years, an audit released Thursday shows.

One employee working for the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation got $36,151 more than specified. Another received and additional $25,662.

Auditor General William Holland's office examined seven cases where department employees did work for other agencies. In four of them, the employees wound up being paid too much. The audit did not indicate how many such" interagency agreements" the agency had.

In three cases, the other agency involved was the governor's budget office.

The case of the $36,000 overpayment happened under former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, said Susan Hofer, spokeswoman for the Department of Financial and Professional Regulation. She couldn't immediately say whether money had been recovered.

The other overpayments occurred when payroll for the agency was being centralized and confusion over the new system might have played a role, she said.

Holland's report also found in several cases that the agency lacked documentation showing an employee did any work for the Department of Financial and Professional Regulation and other cases where there was no explanation of how payment among the participating agencies was determined.

In its response to the audit, the department said it will be more diligent in recognizing possible overpayments and adjusting pay in such cases. Officials said they would try to develop a way to determine how much each agency should pay.

The report also declared that the Department of Financial and Professional Regulation couldn't find $240,000 worth of equipment - mostly computers - the last two years.

The agency told Holland it didn't know whether the computers contained any confidential information.

Hofer said some computers were stolen during a break-in at an agency office, but she couldn't immediately say why that wasn't mentioned in the audit.


AP - Illinois Public Media News - May 12, 2011

Tuition Going Up at Southern Illinois University

Southern Illinois University's Board of Trustees has approved tuition and fee increases for the coming academic year, but despite the added revenue administrators say budgets will still be tight.

President Glenn Poshard said the tuition increase - at 6.9% - is three percent less than the original proposal. He said that means further belt-tightening will be in the works for at least the next year.

"There's no way that I see us letting up on any of the budget management practices that we've put in place," Poshard said. "So, given the fact that that's what we have to continue doing - not filling positions and so on - we'll make it do. But it isn't all that we need, of course."

The newly enacted tuition increase applies to incoming students. The fee increases will apply to all students taking classes this fall and through the next year.\\\

Trustees say they are hopeful that a turnaround in enrollment and changes in other areas will help ease the cost burden on students in the near future.

Categories: Economics, Education

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - May 11, 2011

Champaign’s Mayor Seeks Details on Unrestricted Funds

Champaign's Mayor wants to know more about nearly $50-million in unrestricted funds in the city's budget plan before signing off on one for the next fiscal year.

Don Gerard said the budget line item of $47-million is earmarked for specific public works projects, as well as the city's parking and vehicle funds. But in a year where emergency services are among the possible cuts, Gerard said he wants specifics.

"I heard a lot of people say 'I'm not comfortable with borrowing money, or 'I'm not comfortable with refinancing our pension bonds," he said. "Well, I'm not comfortable with having 47-million dollars unaccounted for and us cutting urban renewal programs. Nor am I comfortable as a taxpayer, as a man with children, in cutting any services relating to our first responders, including the front desk at the police station and browning out a fire station."

Gerard said he expects to have the information on what the funds are allocated for by next Tuesday's full council meeting on May 17th.

The Reverend Eugene Barnes was among members of the public concerned about the city's proposal to transfer $250,000 in reserves from Champaign's urban renewal fund. He said that would impact redevelopment in the Bristol Park neighborhood. Urban renewal makes up part of $2.75 million in one-time transfers from reserve funds in the budget proposal.

The lengthy budget presentation at Tuesday night's study session also included more than $600,000 in reductions, brought on largely through city employees taking a voluntary separation package. City Manager Steve Carter said impacted departments include public works and building safety.

A few city council members also suggest implementing a package liquor tax to bring in some revenue. Council member Karen Foster suggests the city needs the revenue from a liquor tax, saying it would 'equal out the playing field' with the local food and beverage tax. Council member Tom Bruno agrees it is worth a look.

"If we can gauge what the impact of it would be," he said. "And also if we can take into consideration whether or not we will be particularly causing harm to Champaign businesses because of the possibility - and maybe it's only a possibility - that consumers will change their buying habits."

City Finance Director Richard Schnuer said the idea would mean a lot of work for his department, but his staff already collects Champaign's food and beverage, and hotel-motel taxes. The city council expects to sign off on a budget plan by June 21st.

Categories: Economics, Government, Politics

AP - Illinois Public Media News - May 10, 2011

U of Ill. President: Faculty Raises are Possible

University of Illinois President Michael Hogan says faculty could receive their first pay raise in three years this summer if current state budget proposals become reality.

Hogan told The News-Gazette newspaper in Champaign on Monday that faculty on campuses in Urbana-Champaign, Springfield and Chicago could see raises of less than 4 percent.

That figure is based on current funding proposals that would see the university's state appropriation either remain flat as Gov. Pat Quinn has proposed or be cut by up to 3 percent. The Illinois House and Senate have proposed cuts of 1.1 to 3 percent for the state's public universities.

Hogan said he's concerned by the exit of some key faculty members over the past few years.

Categories: Economics, Education

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - May 09, 2011

State Farm to Close Champaign Office

State Farm Insurance says it will close two-dozen field offices over the next year in three states, including one in Champaign on West Park Court that employs 20 people.

It is part of an effort to save the company $8 million over the next five years. State Farm did a year-long study leading up to the consolidation plan, and found it could save money by centralizing technology while remaining efficient.

State Farm spokeswoman Missy Lundberg said administrative staff will consolidate to Indianapolis, but she said most employees will not be affected.

"A lot of those 13 hundred employees are what we call mobile claim workers, and they will be staying in those communities," she said. "What that means is that they will maybe work out of their home, maybe work out of a car, maybe work out of an agent's office."

The Bloomington-based company says it hopes to retain all the affected employees.

In addition to the State Farm office in Champaign closing, Illinois branches affected by the consolidation are in Marion, Collinsville, Springfield, Peoria, Moline, Rockford, Elmhurst, Tinley Park, and Arlington Heights.

Offices in Michigan and Indiana will also close.


AP - Illinois Public Media News - May 09, 2011

Report Finds Quinn’s Proposed Budget Unbalanced

A new report by a fiscal watchdog group shows Illinois Governor Pat Quinn's proposed budget is unbalanced by more than $2 billion.

The report by the Civic Federation found Quinn overestimated some of the money the state is bringing in, specifically when it comes to income taxes.

Quinn's proposed budget estimates Illinois raised $7 billion when it increased the personal income tax rate earlier this year, but the Civic Federation's report finds Quinn's budget for next year does not set aside enough money for income tax refunds. It's about $1 billion short.

Legislators approved the tax increase in January to help balance the state's $13 billion deficit. Quinn also wants to borrow money to pay bills and temporarily suspend some state funding to local governments.

Recently, Illinois' comptroller announced that by her count, Illinois' budget is still some $8 billion out of whack.

Categories: Economics, Government, Politics

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - May 05, 2011

Prairie Center/Community Elements Merger Delayed

Two social service agencies facing potentially drastic state budget cuts have delayed a decision to merge.

Last March Prairie Center and Community Elements said they were exploring a merger. Prairie Center provides substance abuse treatment and prevention while Community Elements, formerly the Mental Health Center of Champaign County, provides other mental health services.

Prairie Center director Bruce Suardini said neither agency is clear on their funding from the state for the rest of the fiscal year, not to mention the outcome of the fiscal year 2012 budget. At one point, Prairie Center and other substance-abuse treatment facilities were threatened with a total cutoff of state money.

"Because of the instability of the funding, merging the two agencies together just to merge is not a good business decision," Suardini said. "And not having the budgets in place to understand where we're going for Fiscal Year 2012 keeps that process from finalizing."

Suardini said all other indicators point to a merger as the best option for both mental health providers. But he said merger talks won't resume until the second half of 2011, with a decision possibly delayed until next January.


WILL - Illinois Public Media News - May 04, 2011

Wind Turbine Project Scrapped for UI Campus

The University of Illinois has scrapped a proposal to build a single wind turbine on the Urbana campus' South Farms site, citing the project's rising cost and its negative response from area residents.

The Board of Trustees' Audit, Budget, Finance and Facilities Committee chose not to advance the proposal, so it won't be voted on by the full board.

First introduced in 2003, the project has evolved over the last year, going from three wind turbines to only one. Earlier this year, the U of I sought an additional $700,000 for the project, bringing the overall cost to more than $5 million.

U of I spokesman Tom Hardy said the university will work with sustainability groups on the Urbana campus to come up with other energy projects.

"I think it's just a matter of going back and identifying those that can fit within a certain budget, and don't have a community impact that this one had," Hardy said.

Most of the funding for the wind turbine would have been supported by the university, with an additional $2 million dollars coming from a grant awarded by the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation The foundation said the grant will not be available if the wind turbine isn't built, but an official with the organization said the project's termination shouldn't affect future grant applications submitted by the U of I.

Kevin Wolz with the Student Sustainability Committee said he hopes funds reserved for the wind turbine support other environmental efforts, like campus composting, solar technology, and native landscaping.

"There is probably nothing we can do that can achieve the same symbolism that that turbine would have for campus sustainability in our movement," Wolz said. "That indeed will be the most difficult thing to replace.


WILL - Illinois Public Media News - May 04, 2011

Don Gerard Sworn In as Champaign’s Next Mayor

The first city council meeting for Champaign's new mayor was an uneventful one. But Don Gerard will work to fulfill part of his campaign platform starting next week.

Gerard was sworn into office before the packed city council chambers Tuesday, a night where all votes were unanimous and the bills before the council prompted little conversation. But at next Tuesday's study session, the new mayor and council will revisit the cost-cutting proposals of ending overnight front desk hours at the police station, and reducing staff at one fire station. City leaders say $2-million in cuts are needed.

Gerard says he wants to look into spending some reserve funds and saving jobs. He says it's all in the interest of the taxpayer.

"I want to bring them all the services they deserve, and all the services they're paying for," said Gerard. "We have money in rainy day accounts, and I think it's raining. So I think it's time to decide if we can move some of that money around a little bit, and get us through as we meet the economic recovery here."

New District 5 Council member Paul Faraci, also sworn in Tuesday night, says he has no intention of cutting police or fire services. The state economic official says he was 'energized' by Tuesday night's crowd, and is anxious to get his feet wet.

"There's a lot of work to do, and we've got a lot of hard decisions to make in the future," Faraci said. "But I think the quality of the staff, the experience of the sitting city council and our new mayor, I look forward to getting a lot of things accomplished."

And Mayor Gerard wants to turn his attention to another group suffering from the poor economy - teenagers. He wants to start up a citywide teen summer job program.

"What are we doing with a generation of teenagers who have been displaced by adults who have taken part-time jobs and so forth just to make ends meet," said Gerard. "The job market in Champaign is really tough right now. The best way to keep our streets safe and our community healthy is have teenagers working."

In other business, Champaign's city council has gone on record opposing the state's decision to drop Health Alliance. The council Tuesday unanimously backed a resolution urging that the decision be re-examined. Company CEO Jeff Ingrum told the council that more than 30,000 state employees in Champaign County are covered by Health Alliance, and the state's decision could impact the local economy by more than $30-million. Ingrum says members would essentially be 'left to choose between their doctors and their wallets.'

A new recycling center is expected to open soon in Champaign. The council last night approved a special use permit for the drop-off facility operated by Green Purpose LLC located at 807 Pioneer Street, just to the south of where the city used to operate a facility of its own.

Categories: Economics, Government, Politics

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