Illinois Public Media News

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - January 24, 2011

Budget Work Begins in Unit 4 Under the Specter of More Cuts

School board members in the Champaign district will have more unenviable work ahead of them as talks begin on a new district budget.

Last year they had to make roughly $2 million in cuts to staff and other expenses to meet a projected budget deficit. For the fiscal year 2012 budget, Chief Financial Officer Gene Logas said Unit 4 will likely have to shed another $2 million in expenses.

Logas said cuts in staff positions may be inevitable, but core curriculum should not be affected. On the other hand, Logas says some specialized courses with low headcounts - mainly in high schools - may not be offered.

"We're not jamming 30 kids into a classroom or anything like that," Logas said. "It's just that some of those classes that we've been able to allow to take place with very small numbers in the past, those are some of the ones we're going to have to take a hard look at and maybe not be able to offer as many of those."

Logas said he hopes that most of the personnel cuts will be resolved through attrition instead of layoffs - but he noted Unit 4 will have to notify potentially laid-off teachers and other staff in March. He said discussions on the 2012 budget begin with Monday night's school board meeting.


WILL - Illinois Public Media News - January 21, 2011

Proposed Champaign Service Cuts Include Police, Fire Services

Champaign officials are considering a series of cuts that would affect the city's emergency service departments.

The proposal would not lead to any job cuts to the city's firefighting services, but it would mean closing one firefighting company at Fire Station Four on West John Street, on days when overtime is needed to keep the station running. According to Champaign Firefighters Local 1260 President Chris Zaremba, that would have a dramatic effect on the response time on the city's west side, and could hurt other areas if those firefighters are tied up.

Zaremba said he hopes the public provides feedback on the proposed cuts at the city council study session Tuesday night, and in the days ahead.

"Tuesday night being a study session as opposed to a council meeting, your ability to speak publicly is a lot less," Zaremba said. "What we really want to see and what we're really hoping to see in the near future is not our members come out, but educated citizens come out and express concerns about it."

The recommended budget cuts would lead to the elimination of one person at the police station who staffs the front desk during over night hours from 7 pm to 7 am. City Manager Steve Carter said as a result of the cuts, those inquiring about a towed vehicle or similar service would have to wait until morning. However, he noted that they should be calling METCAD 9-1-1 in the event of a crime or accident.

City Manager Steve Carter suggests that is what mutual aid is for, citing the fire that destroyed the Metropolitan Building in October 2008.

"We have several departments from the surrounding area helping us, and we respond likewise when they don't have adequate staffing," Carter said. "No community can afford by themselves to staff at a level that can address any conceivable emergency situation."

The City Building's information desk would also be closed. The city manager's staff would help route phone calls while the general telephone number would be eliminated.

In total, fifteen city positions would be cut if the $3.5 million reduction plan is approved by the Champaign City Council in March. These cuts would be among the most visible aspects of a spending reduction plan that seeks to eliminate a $2 million gap in the current city budget.

The council votes on the changes in March, but Champaign Fire Chief Doug Forsman said there is no set date when the fire department would make the change, suggesting sales tax receipts could improve later in the year. But Champaign City Finance Director Richard Schnuer said that is unlikely based on the predictions of economists.

"One major revenue source has turned from dropping to now increasing slightly, but our costs are increasing in many ways in which we have limited control," he said.

City staff is also recommending a voluntary separation program. Through it, Carter said it is still possible the city could achieve the savings it is seeking without layoffs.

Categories: Economics, Government, Politics

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - January 20, 2011

Voluntary Separation a Possible Budget-Cutting Tool in Champaign

The city of Champaign is getting ready to release another round of budget cuts - and some city employees may be given the option to leave their jobs.

City manager Steve Carter will tell city council members next week about a proposal for a voluntary separation incentive. If the council approves, some union and non-union employees would be able to get two weeks' salary for each year of service up to 26 weeks if they agree to leave, with a minimum of $10,000.

Carter said he expects about 20 employees would accept the incentive, which will be offered first to people whose jobs are already under threat of being cut.

"Any position, whether through past budget decisions or the ones we're going to be discussing next Tuesday, those will be our top priority (for separation offers)," Carter said. "We have the ability to lay people off, but our preference would be not to. We have really good employees, and if we can find a way to make this more mutual, the better for the organization and for the people."

Carter said police officers and firefighters would not be offered voluntary separation because their positions would likely have to be re-filled. He said the city administration will say what other budget cuts they think should be made in the middle of the current year's budget. The last five year forecast suggested the city needed to cut $1.2 million in recurring costs from this year's spending plan.

Categories: Economics, Government, Politics

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - January 20, 2011

University of Illinois Adopts Tuition Control Measure

University of Illinois trustees have adopted a policy designed to limit tuition increases even as they raise the cost of housing at the school's three campuses.

The tuition policy approved Thursday links tuition increases to inflation and other factors.

Students are guaranteed by state law to pay the tuition rate they paid in their freshman year throughout their undergraduate years. But the rate increases for most incoming classes.

This year, tuition increased 9.5 percent and led to complaints from some students and parents. The cost of tuition and housing for a typical undergraduate year at the Urbana-Champaign campus is more than $20,000.

Governor Pat Quinn said he likes 'the basic framework and concept' for the next year's tuition that was outlined Thursday by University of Illinois Chief Financial Officer Walter Knorr.

"I think that has a lot of merit to try and keep tuition pretty much even with inflation and adjusted dollars," Quinn said. "I think carrying that out is a good mission."

Quinn said the state is also putting about $404 million into grants for MAP, or the Monetary Awards program., but he said the demand is at least 50-percent higher that. Quinn added that one of his goals for the next four years is to secure more scholarship money for students who attend Illinois' public universities and community colleges.

Trustees on Thursday also raised the cost of a double dorm room in Urbana-Champaign 4 percent to $9,452 a year. Costs in Springfield and Chicago increased less sharply.

(Additional reporting from the Associated Press)


AP - Illinois Public Media News - January 20, 2011

Mitsubishi Plans New Model for Ill. Plant

Mitsubishi Motors North America plans to produce a new model at its plant in Normal, Ill., extending the life of the facility just a month after employees agreed to lower wages the company said were needed to keep it open.

Mitsubishi announced the plans as part of new, global business plan aimed at revitalizing the troubled Japanese automaker.

"One of the main pillars of this (plan) is a transition from region-specific models with all of the specifics that entails - producing for a single market, single group of consumers, a single economy - to more global models that are produced for multiple markets," Mitsubishi spokesman Dan Irvin said. "And the new model will be one of those global models."

The company plans to announce what the new model will be in the next few weeks, he said, but all four models now made at the central Illinois plant - the Galant, Eclipse and Spyder and the Endeavor sport utility vehicle - will be phased out.

Employees and local officials at the plant said they're still waiting for details on the new model and to learn whether it will keep all 1,300 plant employees on the job. But the news that one of the largest and highest-paying area employers will stay open was a relief.

"These jobs are very hard to come by and, again, particularly in this economy when most companies of this nature are just hoping to sustain their current employment levels," city manager Mark Peterson said. "These would be, I hate to say impossible, but almost impossible to replace."

The United Auto Workers said Mitsubishi's announcement was a just reward for tough pay concessions its members had little choice but to accept.

"Considering the economy, the state of the economy right now, I think the decision was pretty clear for a majority of the members," UAW local President Ralph Timan said. "It was a tough decision, and it came with sacrifices."

Two-thirds of the union's almost 1,100 members at the plant voted last month to cut a reported $1.67 an hour from their wages after the company said it needed the concessions to remain competitive.

The Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity said at the time that it was talking with Mitsubishi about possible incentives. The agency and company continue to talk but so far no tax breaks or other incentives have been provided spokesman Mike Claffey said.

Like the auto industry in general, Mitsubishi North America has struggled with slow sales. The company's U.S. market share for 2009 was just over one half of one percent - the lowest level since 1985, according to WardsAuto.com, a web site that tracks auto industry data.

The company's new business plan, which it calls Jump 2013, is aimed at producing more vehicles to sell in emerging markets such as China and Brazil. The goal, according to a company release, is to raise sales to 1.37 million vehicles in 2013 from the roughly 1 million it expects it will sell by the end of the current fiscal year in March.

The Normal plant started making the Gallant and the other three models it now manufactures in 2005, Irvin said.

"They've been very good to us for a very long time," he said.

The plant at one point employed far more workers, but 1,200 were laid off in 2004 as part of what Mitsubishi said at the time was its last chance for survival. Those layoffs have been followed by other wage and benefit concessions.

Peterson said Thursday that he's anxiously waiting for details about what the company's new model will mean for job numbers at the 22-year-old plant.

"The questions is: Now that's one model - is that going to sustain all 1,100 existing jobs, and could it mean more out there?" he said.


WILL - Illinois Public Media News - January 18, 2011

Durbin: AZ Shootings Could Prompt Action on Mental Health, Gun Laws

Illinois' senior Senator, Dick Durbin, says concrete action can come out of the recent shootings at a congressional event in Tucson Arizona. The attack that killed six people and critically injured U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz) has led to a flurry of proposals in reaction, from gun control measures to a clampdown on incivility in politics. In an interview with Illinois Public Media's Tom Rogers, Durbin said he thinks some of those ideas can progress beyond the talking stage.

(Photo by Sean Powers/WILL)

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WILL - Illinois Public Media News - January 18, 2011

Tuscola Loses Out on Bid to Host Historic Steam Engine

Tuscola lost out on its bid Tuesday to host a steam locomotive that would have traveled through a dozen communities in Illinois and Iowa.

Online voting for the contest through Union Pacific Railroad ended Monday night. In addition to Tuscola, other cities in the running included Little Rock, Ark., Boise, Idaho, and Baton Rouge, La.

Little Rock came out on top in the contest with 76,217 votes, narrowly defeating Tuscola by a little more than 3,000 votes. That means the steam engine will follow a route that starts in Kansas City, Mo., traveling east to Boonville, Jefferson City, Chamois and St. Louis before heading south to Cape Girardeau, Dexter and Poplar Bluff. It will continue through Bald Knob, Ark., before concluding in Little Rock.

According to Union Pacific Railroad, the engine is the last steam locomotive built for the rail company. It was placed in freight service in Nebraska from 1957 to 1959, then was saved from being scrapped in 1960.

Brian Moody, the executive director of Tuscola Economic Development Inc., admitted he was surprised Tuscola, with a population of around 4,500 people, got as far as it did in the competition.

"For our small community to even be competing with these much larger communities," Moody said. "It's kind of a big David and Goliath. We came up a little bit short, and that's ok."

Tuscola is a central point for three different railroads, including CSX, Canadian National, and Union Pacific. Moody said thanks to the national publicity from the contest, Tuscola city officials have been contacted in recent weeks by people who are interested in railroads, and he thinks some of those "railroad enthusiasts" might be encouraged to visit Tuscola.

"We knew there were railroad enthusiasts who had a lot of interest in Tuscola because of the unique characteristics in our rails," he said. "This kind of gave us the opportunity to demonstrate to them that we were as enthusiastic about those things as they were."

Moody said moving forward, Tuscola will focus on how it can take advantage of its rail services to boost tourism. He also noted that the city will keep an eye out on other similar competitions.

(Photo courtesy of Union Pacific Railroad)

Categories: Economics, Transportation

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - January 14, 2011

Illinois State Board of Education Approves Education Funding Request

The Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) has approved a budget proposal for next year that it will send to lawmakers in Springfield.

After the General Assembly passed a massive 67-percent income tax hike, it is uncertain how Governor Pat Quinn and the legislature will respond to the request. The ISBE is asking for $709.4 million in additional state support for Fiscal Year 2012. Board of Education spokeswoman Mary Fergus said she is "cautiously optimistic" that the funding request will be approved.

Fergus explained that in formulating the proposal, the ISBE considered feedback from the public and the state's Education Funding Advisory Board, which pushed for a much larger $4 billion increase in education funding.

"We know the economic reality is not going to support that," she said.

State support for education has plunged in the last couple of years by about $450 million.

A bulk of the money requested by the ISBE would support General State Aid and mandated categoricals that have seen cuts, like transportation funding. Also included in the budget request is a $3.5 million increase for bilingual education, a $2.3 million increase to improve teacher training programs, and a $900,000 increase in the amount of funding for feasibility studies as school districts consider consolidations.

"We're not really talking about expanding a lot of programs," Fergus said. "Some of this increase will go toward a little bit of expansion, but really this is about restoring funds."

The Illinois State Board of Education will include its budget recommendation as part of the overall Fiscal Year 2012 state budget.


WILL - Illinois Public Media News - January 13, 2011

Ill. Tax Increases: The Beginning of an Exodus, or Just Another Annoyance?

A University of Illinois economist doesn't predict a long line of businesses leaving the state because of higher income taxes, but he said Illinois remains an uncertain place for commerce and industry.

Daniel Merriman of the Illinois Institute of government and Public Affairs said neighboring states had already begun to lure away employers concerned about Illinois' uncertain deficit situation even before lawmakers passed a 67 percent hike in personal income taxes this week. Governor Pat Quinn signed the increase into law Thursday afternoon.

Merriman said the tax increase will be one more drawback, but it still won't be enough to address all the red ink in Springfield.

"A combination of tax increases, expenditure reductions and growth is necessary to eliminate it," Merriman said. "The taxes actually do help reduce the deficit. It's just that it hasn't done enough to fully eliminate it, and they're still going to have to have expenditure reductions along the way."

Merriman said lawmakers still haven't addressed structural problems either, like fixing the underfunded pension system or revamping Medicaid and workers' compensation laws. But he said employers are not as mobile as some would believe - noting that most firms are rooted in the state and serve mainly Illinois customers.

Then there is the question of the region's overall economic health. Merriman said the pressure facing manufacturers in Illinois would face them wherever they relocate.

"A lot of the concern that people have had with the kind of business loss in Illinois has been with manufacturing establishments that have been leaving the entire Midwest, and to some extent they're just leaving the country as a whole," he said. "So it's not clear that Illinois is going to be losing that much to neighboring states. It's that manufacturing just isn't as strong as it used to be.


AP - Illinois Public Media News - January 13, 2011

Quinn Signs Major Tax Increase into Law

If you live in Illinois, your taxes have now gone up 67 percent. Governor Pat Quinn has signed the income tax package into law.

The government will get a bigger cut of your next paycheck. Illinois' flat income tax rate is now 5 percent, up from 3 percent. Someone making 40 thousand dollars a year will now pay another 800 dollars in state taxes, not counting deductions or federal tax breaks.

It will stay that way for at least four years when the rate is scheduled to go down. The corporate rate jumps from 4.8 percent to 7 percent, with a similar reversion in four years.

Democrats passed the measure in the wee hours Wednesday morning, among the final acts of the lame duck session. The move is meant to help close a $15 billion budget deficit that threatens to cripple state government.

Governor Pat Quinn says Illinois' fiscal house was burning. "We have an emergency, a fiscal emergency," Quinn said. "Our state was careening towards bankruptcy and fiscal insolvency."

The increase is retroactive, covering all wages earned since Jan. 1 of this year.

Republican legislators are already trying to get the law repealed, and governors of other states are lining up to lure Illinois' businesses, upset that the corporate tax rate is also going up.

(Additional reporting from The Associated Press)


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