Illinois Public Media News
Officials with the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District (CUPHD) are scrambling to find homes for a dozen displaced Rantoul residents who left the Cherry Orchard apartments last week after reports of poor living conditions.
Even though most of the Cherry Orchard tenants have left the apartment complex, CUPHD administrator Julie Pryde said one family continues to live there, but will move out once they have a permanent place to live.
"They have heat and water now, so they are safe in that regard," Pryde said.
The rest of the tenants have temporarily moved into hotel rooms. The CUPHD is trying to secure residential leases for those individuals with area landlords. Jennifer Valade, the social services director with the Salvation Army of Champaign County, said her agency's waiting for the public health district to help set up the lease agreements, so that the Salvation Army can work with people who need help with rent.
"It's obvious that they're going to need agencies to help them out, and unfortunately they were put in a situation that they didn't deserve," Valade said.
Problems with Cherry Orchard apartments stemmed from a Sept. 2007 review by health inspectors who discovered a broken septic system leaking sewage into nearby farmland. Since then, tenants have complained about inadequate heating, mold, and power outages.
Pryde said CUPHD has hit a snag in securing a lease for each individual. She said she is close to finding one family a permanent home, but still struggling to find homes for everyone else.
The Cherry Orchard apartments have traditionally housed many migrant workers, who live in Rantoul for part of the year while working for a large agricultural company, like Pioneer, Monsanto, or Syngenta. Some of them may not have a strong credit history, which can make it difficult to get a residential lease agreement worked out.
"The issue is some of these folks don't have a very good rental history, if any," said Andy Kulczycki, executive director of the Community Service Center of Northern Champaign County. "A lot of landlords screen their potential tenants."
Cherry Orchard's landlords, Bernard Ramos and his father, Eduardo, are schedule to appear before a judge during a Jan. 24 bench trial for failing to move their tenants and fix their sewer and septic systems as they originally promised.
Jason Barickman says the message is clear: "I just don't know how you look the voters in the face unless you substantially decrease the spending,"
Barickman was sworn in Monday morning as a State Representative to Illinois' 105th House District. He took the oath of office at the Livingston County Courthouse from Circuit Judge Jennifer Bauknecht with his his wife, Kristin, by his side. Barickman will be sworn in again Wednesday in Springfield for full two-year term. He replaces Shane Cultra, who was appointed Sunday to the State Senate.
Barickman said he is ready to get his feet wet right away, and vote against Democrats' proposed income tax increase of nearly 75-percent.
"Our government in Springfield has continued to spend too much money, and failed to address any of those serious reforms that they talked about," he said. "There's rumors of maybe some reforms to worker's compensation, but it appears to be nothing more than window dressing. We still have a pension system that's dramatically underfunded, and continuing to obligate the state to huge sums of money for the next 10, 20, 50 years."
Barickman hopes that the re-drawing of legislative districts will allow him to run for another term in 2012. A Livingston County native, the 35-year old is a founding partner of the Champaign law firm Bartell, Barickman and Powell. He lives in Champaign, and has served as Champaign County's GOP Chair since 2006.
A drive to raise Illinois taxes dramatically was stuck in "park" Sunday as Democratic leaders came and went without comment and legislators waited for hours.
Gov. Pat Quinn met Sunday afternoon with the Illinois Senate president and House speaker to strategize on their efforts to raise income taxes and sales taxes. All three left through back exits after the meeting rather than answer questions.
Quinn, cornered by reporters as he tried to leave the Capitol through a basement exit, would say only that he's "working hard" to pass a plan that will rescue state government from its paralyzing financial crisis.
A House session scheduled for mid-afternoon was delayed for hours, then ended quickly after representatives voted to end free mass-transit rides for senior citizens.
Lawmakers will be back to work Monday, but with some of their time and attention devoted to the inauguration of Quinn and other statewide officials.
Rep. Joseph Lyons, a Chicago Democrat and a member of House Speaker Michael Madigan's leadership team, called the tax issue a "potential career-ending vote."
"Are the political will and votes there to do it or not? At this stage, I don't know the answer," he said.
Democrats are considering a plan to boost the 3 percent income tax rate to 5.25 percent for four years, a 75 percent increase. They're also looking at a dollar-a-pack increase in cigarette taxes, more than double the current rate.
Together, the increases would produce about $7.5 billion a year, backers say. The money would be used in several ways: to close the gap between annual government costs and revenues, to provide money for education and property tax relief, and to finance borrowing about $8 billion to pay off the state's backlog of overdue bills.
After four years, the income tax rate would drop, although not all the way back to current levels. With officials still negotiating, it was unclear how much the rate would drop.
Supporters of the tax increase argue it must be part of the solution to a budget deficit that could hit $15 billion this year. The deficit is so large that the government is borrowing money to make its annual contribution to retirement systems and is months behind in paying bills.
Democratic leaders want to pass something before the current General Assembly formally ends Wednesday at noon. After that, they lose some of their Democratic majority as well as "lame duck" legislators who might be persuaded to support a tax increase as they leave office.
"Time is running short," said Rep. Lou Lang of Skokie, another member of House leadership.
Dan Rutherford, a Republican who will be sworn in as Illinois treasurer Monday, objected to Democrats trying to pass a tax increase during the lame duck session. He predicted "a tremendous backlash from the public" if it happens.
Rep. Frank Mautino of Spring Valley, a budget specialist for House Democrats, said lawmakers have multiple worries about the tax proposal.
Some object that it would push Illinois' business tax rate to the highest in the country, he said. Others want firm limits on government spending, while others see a need for more property tax relief. Those differences make it tricky to negotiate a plan that can pass, even with Madigan pressing his members to support it.
"There's no one person that can magically make this vote go on its own," Mautino said. "The decision on the tax itself is personal, and it's regional. The suburban people need property tax relief. The downstate guys are concerned with spending."
State officials held a series of receptions Sunday. More events were planned for Monday afternoon, after the inauguration ceremony at a Springfield convention center.
State police said they don't plan any significant changes to security after the Arizona shooting spree in which a member of Congress was critically wounded. But the department said some officers would be added in public areas to serve as a visible deterrent to anyone thinking of causing trouble.
The House voted 95-15 to end a perk that former Gov. Rod Blagojevich granted to all senior citizens, regardless of income: free rides on public transportation across the state.
Transit systems complain that the free service costs them tens of millions of dollars at a time when they're cutting service and jobs. The House bill would limit the free service to poor senior citizens, starting six months after the measure became law.
Shane Cultra's longtime aide, Russell Geisler, will be taking over his boss' Illinois House seat for just one day this Sunday --- the day that Democrats could bring their budget measure to a vote.
Under the plan outlined by Senate President John Cullerton on Thursday night, Illinois' three percent income tax would jump to a rate of five and a quarter. For taxpayers that is a 75 percent increase. After about four years, the rate will drop, making it a solid 25 percent hike.
Champaign Republicans have raised concerns about Geisler's temporary appointment to the General Assembly, saying he should not be allowed to vote during his day in office.
Cultra said he believes Geisler will vote for the legislation to raise the state's income tax, just as he would. The measure also includes an increase in the corporate income tax that Cultra said would make it the highest in the country. The Onarga Republican said the state needs to cut spending before it considers raising taxes.
"This is a huge, huge tax increase," Cultra said. "It's going to hurt people. I think you have to bite the bullet, and start cutting programs back. You're just going to have to start cutting everything."
Cultra could have another chance to vote on the income tax proposal if it comes to the Illinois Senate --- a body he will join next week. But State Senator Mike Frerichs (D-Champaign) said he is not sure if the proposal will make it that far.
Frerichs would not commit to supporting the take hike, which he said he still needs to review. However, he did say along with spending cuts, the state needs to find new revenue to address a deficit that could hit $15-billion this year.
"There's a general agreement in our caucus that we don't want to see devastating cuts to our universities, to our education system, to our pension contributions," Frerichs said. "In order to make those payments, we need to find revenue so that we can pay our bills."
Democrats are hurrying to get the legislation passed before Wednesday when the lame duck session ends. Democrats will still hold the majority in both chambers when lawmakers are sworn in on Jan. 12, though there will be more Republican in the General Assembly.
Illinois legislators are taking a break before Democrats push forward on a major income tax increase.
House leaders will try to round up support for the 75 percent increase before returning to Springfield on Sunday.
After the House adjourned today, Rep. Frank Mautino said the tax plan doesn't have enough support to pass right now. But the Spring Valley Democrat predicts it will pass in the end.
There's little doubt it will succeed in the Senate, which resumes work on Monday. That's when Gov. Pat Quinn and other statewide officials are sworn in for a new term.
Several Republican lawmakers criticized the idea of raising taxes so dramatically, even if most of the increase would expire after four years. They say it would drive jobs out of Illinois.
Top Illinois Democrats have agreed to push a plan that would temporarily boost income taxes by 75 percent and double cigarette taxes, Senate President John Cullerton said Thursday.
Illinois' personal income tax rate, now 3 percent, would climb to 5.25 percent for four years under the plan Cullerton outlined. After that, it would drop to 3.75 percent.
That means someone who now owes $1,000 in state income taxes would owe $1,750 at the new rate, then $1,250 after four years.
The permanent portion would be used several ways. Some would be devoted to schools and some to repaying an $8.5 billion loan that would be used to pay overdue bills, Cullerton said.
Another chunk would go to property tax relief in the form of annual $325 checks, he said. The checks would replace the property tax exemption that homeowners can now claim on their income taxes.
Cullerton said House Speaker Michael Madigan and Gov. Pat Quinn fully support the tax proposal, although Quinn once promised to veto any increase of that size.
Madigan's spokesman said he couldn't discuss the speaker's position. The Senate has approved tax increases in the past, so the biggest question about this proposal is whether Madigan can find enough votes to get it through the House.
The governor's office put out a statement that stopped short of saying the three leaders had reached a final agreement. Rank-and-file legislators said Quinn described the tax plan to them earlier in the day and portrayed it as a deal among all three of the powerful Democrats.
Democrats say they have no choice but to raise taxes as one part of a solution to Illinois' massive budget crisis. The state deficit could reach $15 billion in the coming year. The government is borrowing money to cover some obligations, letting bills go unpaid for months and cutting corners everywhere from state prisons to state parks.
"We are in desperate need," Cullerton said at a news conference in his office.
Cullerton said the higher taxes would generate about $7.5 billion a year during the four years they're at their highest.
The tax on cigarettes, now 98 cents a pack, would jump to $1.98, Cullerton said. The money would be earmarked for education.
Quinn, Cullerton and Madigan want to pass something before the current General Assembly formally ends Jan. 12. After that, they lose some of their Democratic majority as well as outgoing legislators who might be persuaded to support a tax increase as they leave office.
Madigan has repeatedly said he doubts that a tax increase could pass in the House without Republican support. But Republican leaders have not been included in tax and budget negotiations, and there was no indication Thursday that they were prepared to cooperate with the Democrats.
"If they think this is a solution, they should go ahead and put their own votes on it," said Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno, R-Lemont.
Cullerton emphasized that taxes would be just one part of the solution.
Quinn and the Legislature already have cut spending significantly. They've also reduced pension benefits for future state employees and passed a plan to help limit the cost of providing health care to the poor.
Cullerton said there also will be a moratorium on new programs and spending growth would be held to 1 percent a year.
"We are not doing a short-term fix," he said.
The tax proposal puts Quinn in an awkward position. It would boost the tax rate by 2.25 percentage points, but the governor promised last year to veto any increase above 1 percentage point.
Last summer, a Quinn aide suggested taxes might have to be raised by 2 points. Quinn quickly disavowed the comments and said he opposed anything beyond his proposed hike of 1 percentage point.
"I'm going to veto anything that isn't my plan," Quinn said at the time.
Quinn's office didn't comment Thursday on the conflict between the tax plan and his campaign promise.
Radogno said it would be "dishonest" for Quinn to approve it after promising a veto.
"To me, that's kind of a bait and switch," she said.
A company in Decatur that produces police radar and traffic enforcement equipment for police agencies in the United States and in other countries is moving its manufacturing division to Arizona and California.
Decatur Electronics will relocate the department to a larger 50-thousand square foot facility near Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport, and it will also set up an assembly line in San Diego. Forty-three workers would be affected as a result of the move, and 10 of those employees are customer service representatives who will relocate to Arizona.
Tim Roberts, the company's customer service manager, said the sluggish economy has meant that fewer law enforcement agencies are buying new equipment, and instead ordering upgrades or repairs. He said the motivation behind the move is part of an effort to strengthen business
"We're going to a much bigger facility that will allow us to expand our business in the international market as well," Roberts said. "We do service people all over the world, and we need to continue that. So, this will allow us to serve those customers better."
Roberts said it is unclear how many jobs will ultimately be eliminated. He said the company will provide interview training and resume writing workshops to help employees find new work if they lose their jobs.
"We appreciate the functionality and the people who have been here during this time," he said. "We're going to do everything we can to make sure they get job placements and/or transition smoothly."
Relocating the company's manufacturing base is expected to take about three months. The company, which is owned by U.K.-based Bowmer and Kirkland, says the move will not disrupt services or the delivery of products.
Illinois lawmakers are considering a major overhaul of the program that provides medical care to the poor, part of an effort to control costs during a budget crisis and build support for a tax increase.
The legislation would emphasize HMO-style "managed care" and reduce 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.
The lawmakers who negotiated the changes predict they'll save at least $800 million over the next five years. That would amount to roughly 2 percent in a program that costs about $7.6 billion a year.
But with the state budget in a shambles, legislators are searching desperately for any place to save money. In addition, Democratic leaders trying to pass an income tax increase could point to the Medicaid changes as evidence that they're cutting back and not simply grabbing for taxpayers' wallets.
Gov. Pat Quinn met repeatedly with legislative leaders Wednesday, searching for some version of a tax increase that could attract enough support to pass. There were no indications of a breakthrough that might generate the mix of Republican and Democratic votes that would almost certainly be needed to pass such a touchy measure.
Quinn, Senate President John Cullerton and House Speaker Michael Madigan want to pass something before the current General Assembly formally ends Jan. 12. After that, they lose some of their Democratic majority and the outgoing "lame-duck" legislators who might be persuaded to support a tax increase as they leave office.
The state's budget deficit could hit $15 billion this year.
The Medicaid legislation passed in the Illinois Senate 58-0 and now goes to the Illinois House.
Sen. Heather Steans, D-Chicago, acknowledged the changes would save relatively little money. But she and others portrayed it as an important first step toward streamlining Medicaid.
"This is turning an enormous ship. It's hard and it's going to take a lot of work," Steans said.
The bill would require at least half of Medicaid clients to be placed in HMO-style managed care by 2015. It also would make it easier to transfer money to help move disabled people from expensive institutions into cheaper residential care.
Another change would end a policy that allows Medicaid bills to go unpaid for months. That practice costs the state late-payment penalties and disguises the depths of Illinois' financial problems.
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.
Health officials are moving forward with a plan to transfer residents living in Rantoul's Cherry Orchard apartments to new homes.
This is in response to health concerns that have marred the apartment complex for nearly two and a half years. Health inspectors learned in Sep. 2007 that there was something wrong with the Cherry Orchard apartments after discovering sewage seeping from a septic system into nearby farmland. Since then, there have been reports of mold, inadequate heating, and power outages.
The landlords of the property, Bernard Ramos and his father, Eduardo, promised that by late last year they would address the septic tank issue by moving tenants into housing units that were up to code. Ramos told health officials that he would vacate two of the apartment buildings (#7 and #8) by Dec. 3. Then two other complexes (#2, #3, and #4) were supposed to be unoccupied by Dec. 20. Jim Roberts is the Director of Environmental Health with the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District (CUPHD). Roberts said there is only one building known to have a fully functioning septic system (#6).
"Ramos agreed to move people from occupied buildings to maybe another building that would have a properly treated sewage, and he failed to do so," Roberts explained. "What we're trying to do is we're trying to eliminate the people from the places that we know have raw, untreated sewage."
By Wednesday afternoon, there were still around a dozen residents living in the apartments. The landlords of the Cherry Orchard apartments are scheduled to appear in court on Jan. 24 for failing to move their tenants and fix their sewer and septic systems as originally promised.
"I don't have enough money to move to another apartment," said one tenant who has lived at Cherry Orchard with her four children for the last year and a half. "It's not good for someone to live there."
The Cherry Orchard apartments are home to many migrant workers who spend part of the year in Rantoul working for one of the large agricultural companies, like Pioneer, Monsanto, or Syngenta. Many of those workers move to Rantoul in the summer to work during the harvest season, and leave before the winter.
"We need to prevent people from moving in there until this (health) issue is addressed," CUPHD administrator Julie Pryde said.
After a meeting Wednesday night between health officials and the tenants, the Salvation Army agreed to temporarily move Cherry Orchard's current residents into hotels. The CUPHD is now trying to move those individuals into permanent homes with assistance from other human service agencies, like the United Way and the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services.
The Cherry Orchard apartments, located on U.S. 45, are in an unincorporated part of Rantoul, making it difficult for health officials to enforce zoning ordinances. Pryde said her department is pushing to tighten the county's housing codes.
"It's not a problem that does not have a solution," she said.
(Photo courtesy of the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District)
Illinois Democrats edged closer to a vote on raising income taxes during a lame-duck session of the state Legislature, as the governor met with legislative leaders Tuesday and lawmakers considered measures that would put new restrictions on state spending.
Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, said Democratic leaders want the House to approve a version of the tax increase that passed in the Senate nearly two years ago. That plan would boost the personal income tax rate to 5 percent, from the current 3 percent.
Meanwhile, a new report from a University of Illinois think tank concludes that the state's budget crisis is even deeper than most people realize. The deficit is usually placed at $12 billion with a possibility that it will reach $15 billion, but the Institute of Government and Public Affairs says the shortfall is really $17 billion and climbing.
"It is hard to overstate the depth of the fiscal hole the state is in," the report said. "If nothing is done soon, the state of Illinois faces a very bleak future."
Cullerton and House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, want some Republican support for a tax increase. That would help insulate Democrats from the potential public outcry over higher taxes. So far, however, Republican leaders have opposed any tax talk.
Democrats are pushing several measures that might help attract GOP support and blunt public criticism.
Madigan, for instance, is sponsoring two constitutional amendments. One would limit government spending growth to the same level of growth that Illinois taxpayers see in their own paychecks. The other would make it harder for state and local government to approve costly benefit increases in pension plans.
Both amendments have been approved in committee and now await action on the House floor.
Democrats also are trying to reach deals on Medicaid costs, school management and worker's compensation.
Together, the measures could be used to argue that Democrats are serious about handling tax money more responsibly if an increase is approved.
"I think what we have to do is pay our bills," Cullerton told reporters after meeting with Madigan and Gov. Pat Quinn. "I think we have to make sure our bond rating is improved and people see that, going forward, we can pay our bills. If people look at it from that perspective, I think it's something that they would accept."
A new Legislature will be sworn in Jan. 12. It may be easier to pass a tax increase before then, while Democrats still have a large majority and some outgoing members can act without worrying about a future voter backlash.
Democratic leaders, however, won't say whether they're prepared to try to pass a tax during the lame-duck session if they can't pick up any Republican support.
A spokeswoman said House Republican Leader Tom Cross met with the governor Tuesday morning and Quinn discussed raising income taxes by just half a percentage point and using that revenue to pay off $14 billion in new debt. Spokeswoman Sara Wojcicki said Quinn offered few details and that Cross reiterated his calls for government spending reforms before considering higher taxes.
There was little evidence Tuesday to suggest that Democrats and Republicans were coming to any accord.
The governor and Democratic leaders did not include top Republicans in their meeting. Republicans opposed Madigan's constitutional amendments to control spending, arguing either that they don't go far enough or they go too far. And a Senate committee voted along party lines to borrow roughly $4 billion and use the money to make the state's annual contribution to government pensions.
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