Illinois Public Media News
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A plan by University of Illinois administrators to place information technology directly under their control isn't sitting well with the Urbana campus Academic Senate.
The faculty-student body opposed the move Monday on a 61-to-14 vote. U of I Chemistry Professor Al Scheeline said consultants suggested the changes to IT just days before administrators approved them in February.
He said no faculty saw the report in that time, and they still don't have a clear idea of what the impact will be. Scheeline said the suggested savings of $18-million a year by the year 2013 are up in the air as well.
"Were the costs accurately figured out? Were the benefits accurately figured out? Was there sufficient breadth in looking at those costs and benefits? I have to clue to the answer of any of those questions," Wheeler said. "And I don't know we would have come up with any different answer if we had those answers, but the faculty just feels like it's been cut off from asking the right questions before precipitious actions were taken."
The Urbana campus Student Body President says plans to centralize Information Technology could mean a loss of autonomy for many who are used to making decisions at their level. David Olsen said the changes could take power away from faculty and researchers.
"How does academic and research educational IT fit into the broader IT picture, and how will that be impacted?" he said. "Will faculty and students who use these IT resources every day, especially in fields like computer science and electrical and computer engineering, how will those fields be affected?"
As with nearly all the votes taken by the Academic Senate, the vote is merely advisory. The Urbana campus' new Executive Chief Information Officer, Michael Hites, said the changes should allow the university to better prioritize certain projects, but he says some are misinterpreting the change in plans. He said the changes won't impact collegiate support groups or research departments like the National Center for Supercomputing Applications.
The Senate's Executive Committee and IT committee will continue to discuss the plans over the summer. Urbana campus Interim Vice Chancellor and Provost Richard Wheeler said the proof will come in the way the changes work out. But he said serious discussions on IT governance on campus are just getting under way.
"There are a lot of pretty good people who are applying themselves to coming up with solutions that will work." said Wheeler.
A U.S. official says Osama bin Laden died firing at the Navy SEALs who stormed his compound.
A little more than a month before the Al Qaeda leader's death, the Congressional Research Service released a report estimating that U.S. operations in Iraq and Afghanistan in the last decade have cost about $1.3 trillion.
Congressman Todd Rokita (R-Indianapolis) sits on the House's budget committee. Rokita acknowledges that while bin Laden's death is a victory in the war on terror; it's also an opportunity for the United States to recognize another national security threat - its own debt.
"I see this as a silver lining as a breakthrough to the military industrial complex about how we really need to effectively fight the war on terrorism in the 21st century in a way that is economical and lets us live within our means," he said.
Rokita said more money should be going to support special ops campaigns...like the one that brought down bin Laden...and less on wars that drag on for years at a time and hurt the nation's economy.
"I think it might be more efficient and cheaper in the long run than sending brigades and units and boots on the ground all over the world."
Meanwhile, Congressman Tim Johnson (R- Urbana) released a statement, saying he looks forward to peace in the Middle East, and U.S. troops returning home from the region.
The Carle Foundation is selling its pharmacy division to Walgreens.
The drug store's purchase of Carle RxExpress will mean four of its pharmacy locations will close in the next two months. By May 31st, Carle pharmacies on Urbana's Cunningham Avenue and Windsor Road will close, along with the location in Danville. In June, Carle's South Clinic location will consolidate with main lobby pharmacy at Carle Hospital. The remaining six will stay open under the Walgreens banner, and Carle's remaining inventory will transfer to nearby Walgreens locations.
Carle Foundation Executive Vice President John Snyder said the retail pharmacy industry has become more competitive, with new consolidations. He said Walgreens can offer discounts on generics and 90-day prescriptions that Carle can't sustain. But Snyder said consumers using Carle pharmacy locations won't see a change in service.
"They have quite a bit of experience in taking over hospital pharmacies, as well as medical office building pharmacies," he said. "They don't run them like typical Walgreens stores. They do recognize there's a difference. Their plan is to run them basically as they're run now with the same hours, and hopefully the same staff."
Snyder says Walgreens has committed to hiring about 80-percent of Carle's 76 pharmacy workers, and will interview all who apply. He said other employees with the necessary skills will be offered the chance to transfer to other jobs at Carle, while remaining workers will receive a severance package. But Walgreens spokeswoman Tiffany Washington said there wasn't a specific figure, only saying that a 'large majority' or Carle RxExpress employees would still have positions at the pharmacies.
Financial terms of the sale weren't disclosed. Proceeds from the sale will go towards the purchase of new hospital facilities and equipment.
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