Illinois Public Media News
Post offices across the country are facing cuts to make up for an $8.5 billion loss in revenue, and Champaign is no exception.
The U.S. Postal Service has experienced a 20 percent decline in mail volume since 2007, which it attributes to an uptick in e-mails and online payments. It plans to start a three-month review, known as an Area Mail Processing (AMP) study, looking at operations at the Champaign Processing and Distribution Facility on North Mattis Avenue. Postal Service spokesman José Aguilar said a decision will be made in a few months on whether to move the facility's stamp cancellation services to Springfield and Bloomington.
"Right now we're looking at every operation we can to save on fuel, save on work hours, set ourselves up, so that the machinery is running at its optimal capacity," Aguilar said.
The post office employs 205 people, and Aguilar said there is a possibility that a portion of those employees could be re-located or lose their jobs. However, he noted that there are several vacant positions at the Champaign facility, and he said there could be opportunities for displaced workers to fill those jobs. After the review is complete, the U.S. Postal Service will gather input from employees and customers before making a decision.
Every two years during the last week of January, communities across the country try to answer a difficult question: How many people are living without permanent shelter? This point in time survey is the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development's effort to determine the number of homeless people nationwide and understand more about their characteristics. CU-CitizenAccess reporter Dan Petrella went along on this year's count in Champaign-Urbana.
(Photo by Acton Gorton/CU-CitizenAccess)
A union representing 800 University of Illinois service employees voted with overwhelming support Thursday to give its members the right to walk off the job.
Contract negotiations between the Service Employees International Union Local 73 and the U of I have gone on for six months. The union is asking for new contracts that include better pay and employee benefits for campus building and food service workers.
Union organizer Ricky Baldwin said the U of I has proposed salary cuts and pay freezes for the workers, which the union has rejected. The university is currently waiting on more than $400 million in state payments. Baldwin said he understand that the U of I is going through some tough economic challenges, but he said union workers are still entitled to better pay and employee benefits.
"We understand that the economy is not good, the budget is not good, but we also know the university has a lot of money," Baldwin said.
Baldwin cites a 37.5 percent salary increase for U of I President Michael Hogan over what former university President B. Joseph White was earning. He also points to the university paying outside consultants $1.7 million to train administrators to 'Plan to Plan', and Board of Trustees giving the green light to raising the U of I's overall operating budget by 3.9 percent.
"They're giving top administrators raises," Baldwin said. "They can afford to give us 30-to-40 cents an hour. It won't break the bank."
Baldwin said workers could walk off the job within a few months if a deal is not reached.
Meanwhile, U of I spokeswoman Robin Kaler said any discussion of a strike is premature and counterproductive.
"The University remains confident that the parties will be able to reach an agreement through good faith negotiations," Kaler said.
The two sides will return to the bargaining table Friday at 9 a.m. at the Florida Avenue Residence Halls. An hour before the meeting, union workers will be picketing.
Unemployment rates dropped in December in every county in Illinois for the first time since data collection by the Illinois Department of Employment Security began in 1974.
The department reported Thursday there were 46,300 more jobs in Illinois last month than there were in December 2009. It was the fourth consecutive monthly year-over-year increase.
According to employment security, the Illinois metropolitan areas recording the largest declines in unemployment were Rockford, down 3.3 points to 13 percent; Peoria, down 2.5 points to 8.8 percent, and Decatur, down 2.2 points to 10.4 percent.
The Chicago-Joliet-Naperville metropolitan area saw its unemployment rate drop 2 points to 8.6 percent. Overall Illinois unemployment in December was 8.8 percent.
Employment Security director Maureen O'Donnell says despite the weak economy, the long-term trend has Illinois gaining jobs.
A legal dispute between the Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District (C-U MTD) and the Champaign Southwest Mass Transit District (CSWMTD) is a step closer to heading to the Illinois Supreme Court.
The C-U MTD board voted unanimously Wednesday to appeal a ruling by the Fourth District Appellate Court stating that the two transit districts can share boundaries.
The CSWMTD was approved by voters in 2006 as a response to the C-U MTD annexing property in Southwest Champaign. Voters wanted to prevent C-U MTD service from coming into certain neighborhoods. Some people who live where the two transit districts overlap pay property taxes for both services, even though the CSWMTD provides no transit service.
"We don't think that Illinois law permits double taxation for identical services," C-U MTD attorney Marc Ansel said. "There have been cases in Illinois involving identical local governments seeking to tax and service the same territory, and the supreme court of Illinois we believe has said that can't be done in the state of Illinois."
Ansel said he hopes the Illinois Supreme Court will decide to hear the case within a couple of months. He said if that happens, oral arguments could begin later this year.
Meanwhile, the CSWMTD board voted to appeal the appellate court's ruling earlier this month also stating that residents should not have to pay higher taxes for two transit services. If there is a final court decision, CSWMTD Chairman Ed Vaughan acknowledges that his group may have to come to a decision about whether to actually provide bus service.
"We've been recognizing that we've got that coming for quite some time, and every one of us pondering exactly what we think we ought to do," Vaughan said. "And we will have that discussion.
At a time when Champaign's city council is considering cuts to the police and fire departments, a candidate for mayor suggests cutting in other areas of city staff.
Don Gerard unveiled his own proposed budget at last night's city council meeting. He suggests $380,000 could come from reducing positions in the finance and the city manager's office.
"They are working for us," Gerard said. "I propose cuts in legal, I propose cuts in information technology, I think those are completely reasonable. If we're going to cut firemen, why we can't cut another lawyer, and we did our homework on these types of things.
Gerard also wants 13 of the highest paid employees to take a 10-percent salary cut, exempting the police and fire departments. He said those include the city manager, finance director, city attorney, and the director of the Champaign Public Library. His plan also suggests that the city refinance its more than $40-million pension debt, paying it off at a lower interest rate in 20 years instead of 10.
Gerard contends the pension plan will produce savings of about $11-million in three years. He is running against longtime mayor Jerry Schweighart in April.
(Photo courtesy of Don Gerard)
An Illinois appellate court ruled Wednesday that lawmakers have to start over if they want to raise taxes and legalize video gambling to pay for a $31 billion statewide construction plan.
A unanimous 1st District appellate court tossed out higher taxes on liquor, candy, and items such as toothpaste, along with video-machine gambling in taverns. They said the law making the changes violated the state Constitution's prohibition on bills that deal with more than one subject.
Gov. Pat Quinn, who vowed an immediate appeal to the state Supreme Court, signed the law in July 2009. It increased revenue to fund a long-awaited plan for building highways, bridges, schools and making other infrastructure improvements. Chicago Blackhawks owner Rocky Wirtz, who also heads one of the state's largest liquor distributorships, sued Quinn and other state officials over the law just before it took effect in September 2009.
"This lawsuit was always about how the legislature passed this bill and the discriminatory tax on wine and spirits," Julia Sznewajs, a spokeperson for Wirtz Beverage Illinois, wrote in a statement. "The decision affirms that and we are gratified by it."
The items taxed at higher rates by the law won't immediately drop in price while all players wait to see how an appeal proceeds.
The legislation legalized video gambling and raised liquor excise taxes and taxes on candy, some beverages, and grooming products. It also allowed for private management of the Illinois Lottery, required financial reports on capital projects from the governor's office, and even commissioned a University of Illinois study on the effect of lottery ticket purchases on families.
Not all of them had to do with state revenue, the court said.
"The wide range of topics in (the law) cannot be considered to possess a 'natural and logical connection,'" the court opinion read.
It also invalidated several companion pieces of legislation, including the mechanism for funding capital construction projects.
Quinn said he would seek a stay of the decision from the Supreme Court, putting the appellate court's decree on hold until the high court could decide the issue.
"Capital bill projects are putting thousands of people to work in every corner of the state, while supporting local business, improving our infrastructure and increasing energy efficiency," the Democratic governor said in a prepared statement.
Both Democratic Senate President John Cullerton of Chicago and House Minority Leader Tom Cross, R-Oswego, issued statements reiterating their commitment to job growth through state-sponsored construction.
Two East Central Illinois lawmakers predict the legislature will still find a way to bail out the capital plan, should Illinois' Supreme Court knock it down or refuse to hear the case.
Democratic Senator Mike Frerichs said given the importance of what's at stake, he is confident that a bipartisan group of lawmakers, with the necessary legal help will make the changes to see it through.
"We had attorneys involved the first time, but I think we'll probably look a little closer, take the opinions of the appellate court justices in mind or the Supreme Court justices in how they rule," Frerichs said. "We should be able to fix it this year."
Frerichs said it is vital that the state do what it can to improve roads and other infrastructure, and building work at the University of Illinois and other college campuses around the state.
Catlin Republican House member Chad Hays said a number of projects are pending in his district that rely on these funds, including more than $800,000 for upgrades to the David S. Palmer Arena, and funds for an education center at Kennekuk County Park. Hays said some of those dollars have already come through.
"Just last week some funding for some energy efficiency upgrades at the Danville YMCA for example were released," Hays said. "So prior to this ruling by the appellate court, some of that money was actually beginning to flow."
Hays said he has staff reviewing the appellate court's opinion, and agrees quick action on a new plan could be needed to protect projects in his district.
Illinois legislators will be back in Springfield next week.
If the Supreme Court upholds the ruling, lawmakers would have to begin anew to adopt video gambling and the tax increases necessary to pay for construction - presumably breaking legislation up into smaller pieces.
A spokeswoman for Attorney General Lisa Madigan, Robyn Zeigler, said in an email that the state will ask the Illinois Supreme Court for an immediate stay of the decision. That will be filed Thursday, Zeigler said.
(Additional reporting from the Associated Press and Illinois Public Radio)
Champaign's City Council has unanimously recommended a series of budget cuts with the condition that the largest ones might be removed from the chopping block after further discussion.
The crowd of about 70 people heard about the city's dismal financial outlook that has already meant $9-million in budget cuts in the last 3 years, and $2-million in the current proposal. Firefighters and other unions say a plan to cut minimum staffing at the west side's station 4 a threat to public safety.
"If finances trumps the safety of the citizens and your firefighters, then we find it ironic that the thousands of residents that live from Southwest Champaign to Northwest Champaign and pay arguably the highest taxes will be receiving a reduced level of fire and medical services," Chuck Sullivan of Champaign Firefighters Local 1260 said. "We strongly urge to reconsider your vote this evening and table the idea of reducing firefighter staffing."
Council member Tom Bruno said he would prefer 27 to 25 firefighters, but said the move makes sense.
"We have to be adults about the problem we face and make a cut somewhere," Bruno said. "I think this is a reasonable cut in a package of reasonable cuts - all of which are painful, but there isn't always an easy solution to life's problems."
Some citizens are also concerned about a proposal to close the front desk of the police station from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. Michael Wilmore with AFSCME Council 31 said it means less communication among officers.
"The cuts that you're talking about in the records department and the front desk are going to be eliminating a lot of people that are the centerpiece of information who give information to the officers in the field." Wilmore said. "Real time information on criminal activity and criminal suspects. If you cut them out, the police in the field are not going to have up to date information. The city will be less safe."
Council member Karen Foster said she will approve the change only as a last resort.
"I've sat with the records department at the police department and I know exactly what they're going through every day," she said. "I just cannot fathom having one police officer come and do all those duties. I just cannot see that."
Foster said she voted for the budget reductions only after talk of seeking out new revenue, and refinancing some of the city's pension debt by issuing municipal bonds, an issue the council will discuss again in March. Champaign City manager Steve Carter said that could save the city about a million dollars in the next year.
The city council also backed a voluntary employee buyout plan similar to one enacted last year at the University of Illinois with hopes that will lessen the need for layoffs in areas like police and public works.
Gov. Pat Quinn signed major reforms to Medicaid into Illinois law on Tuesday, calling it a "landmark achievement" as he was flanked by a bipartisan group of state lawmakers who said the changes aim to reduce costs, pay bills sooner and target fraud.
But some health care advocates said they're concerned because the reforms to the program that provides medical care to the poor include requiring half of all patients on Medicaid be on managed care by 2015.
"It is a landmark achievement, I think, for health care in Illinois," Quinn said.
Quinn said the Medicaid reform efforts are one part of his plan to "stabilize our budget," as Illinois works to plug a deficit that is projected to hit $15 billion in the coming year.
The governor s office estimates the changes will save between $624 million to $774 million over five years. The program's annual budget is $7.6 billion, about one-third of the state's general revenue fund budget. In Illinois, Medicaid is administered by the Department of Healthcare and Family Services and includes about 2.8 million people.
Another cost-saving measure would limit income for future enrollees into Illinois' health care program for children, All Kids, to 300 percent of the federal poverty level.
The law emphasizes HMO-style "managed care" and reduces the use of costly institutions for people with physical and mental disabilities. It would require the state to pay Medicaid bills sooner, reducing late-payment penalties. It also would take steps to ensure ineligible people don't sign up for medical care.
Barbara Dunn, executive director of the Community Health Improvement Center in Decatur, said she has doubts and concerns about plans to require 50 percent of patients to be on managed care by 2015. The center also has offices in Champaign and Mattoon and half of the 19,000 patients it serves are on Medicaid.
"It can work for them but I don't see it as a slam dunk," Dunn said. "I think it's going to be very difficult to do."
Gina Guillemette with the Heartland Alliance in Chicago said she is particularly interested to see how the move to managed care affects populations that the group serves, including the homeless and mentally ill.
"How they proceed is really critical," Guillemette said. "I think that attention to what people's needs are and what best practices are in integrated and coordinated care are really going to be important."
Sen. Heather Steans, D-Chicago, said the bill improves the way government delivers services.
"This is providing better health care outcomes at a reduced cost," Steans said. "We are providing the opportunity to move people out of institutions into home and community-based care settings."
Republicans, like state Sen. Dale Righter of Mattoon, said there was cynicism about any success before work started on the legislation. But the changes are necessary, he said.
"This program was on a collision course," Righter said. "It had an unsustainable rate of growth where liabilities were far outstripping the revenues available to pay for it."
Other changes would help ensure that only eligible people enroll in Medicaid. Clients would have to provide additional evidence that they meet income requirements, live in Illinois and, for continuing clients, that they're still eligible.
Jim Duffett, executive director of the Campaign for Better Health Care based in Champaign, said moving patients to Medicaid managed care is a concern.
"We just want to make sure as this process moves forward that there are extra strong consumer protections for people on Medicaid and for the provider community to also be protected," Duffett said.
HFS director Julie Hamos said the state now has a road map to efficient and effective Medicaid.
"This will not be easy," she said. "We are talking about transforming the system.
The Illini Union Bookstore in Champaign recently unveiled a new apparel line from a company pushing to end poverty in Central America.
South Carolina-based Knights Apparel Inc. runs Alta Gracia, a manufacturing plant in the Dominican Republic. The company employs about 120 people at the factory, and pays each of them $2.83/hour, which exceeds the country's prevailing wage of $0.84/hour. In addition to this salary increase, the company has allowed the workers to form a union.
The non-profit group Workers Rights Consortium (WRC) said the company's salary boost is just enough to adequately feed and shelter a family. In a statement, the WRC said it regularly monitors the facility to make sure the building is up to code and workers are treated well.
"Formal monitoring activities - worker interviews, meetings with management, meetings with union leaders, factory inspections, and review of factory records - all take place at least monthly and in most cases weekly," WRC spokeswoman Theresa Haas said. "Less formal communications with workers and managers occur on a daily basis."
President and CEO of Knights Apparel Joe Bozich said the company makes less because its paying higher salaries, but Bozich noted that the Alta Gracia clothes are sold to consumers at prices that are comparable to other well known brands, like Nike and Adidas. Bozich said he believes this is a viable apparel option because of the social value associated with the clothing line.
"There's been a large group of students that have been asking for this," Bozich said. "They have been petitioning for this for a number of years, saying give us a product to buy that meets a higher standards in terms of corporate social responsibility."
Illini Union bookstore manager Brad Bridges began selling the clothes a couple of weeks ago. Bridges said he would consider dropping partnerships with other clothing companies if there is a large demand for the Alta Gracia apparel.
"Human rights are a big issue with a lot of our students, and we want to provide products that come from a fair wage facility," Bridges said. "I'd like for more companies out there to offer an alternative, so we don't have just one product line from one company"
The factory's clothing is currently sold on more than 200 college campuses.
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