Illinois Public Media News

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - December 01, 2010

Letters to the Future Part of Last Leg of Champaign 150th Celebration

The head of Champaign's 150th Anniversary Celebration said dozens of people of all ages have already sent in their writings on Champaign's past, present or future for the "Letters to the Future" project.

Project Manager LaEisha Meaderds said they are looking for letters to put in a time capsule, to be ready when the capsule is opened 50 years from now, in 2060.

"We've received several letters from just individuals throughout the community," Meaderds said. "We received a stack of letters from Next Generation School, from just a couple of weeks ago, from 7th and 8th graders. And their wit and their insight into what the future would hold are very interesting."

Meaderds said letter-writers should focus on one of three topics --- their personal family ties to Champaign, a description of life in Champaign today, or their hope or dream for Champaign's future.

Letters will be accepted until January 14th, 2011. One hundred and fifty of them will be chosen for display, and then included in the Anniversary time capsule. The capsule will be buried in March, when the year-long 150th Anniversary Celebration comes to a close.

The March wrap up to the Champaign Sesquicentennial will be more low-key than first envisioned. Meaderds said a budget crunch in city government and the generally weak economy mean the concluding celebrations will be smaller than first intended, and plans for installing a commemorative fountain in downtown Champaign have been put on hold.

But Meaderds said they have managed to adjust the 150th Anniversary Celebration to changing economic realities.

"Our planning started before the real downfall began," she explained. "And I think that we've been really, really smart to try and keep our costs as low as possible, and really just spend wisely --- but still at the same time, celebrate our city, celebrate our community and put on a good show."

The 150th Anniversary Celebration started last March with an exhibit on Champaign history, followed by a downtown music festival in July. Meaderds said a youth art competition is part of the Celebration's conclusion this coming March, in addition to the "Letters to the Future" project and the time capsule.

For more information on the Champaign 150th Anniversary Celebration, visit the project's website (www.champaign150.com) or call 217-403-8710.


WILL - Illinois Public Media News - December 01, 2010

Flash Economic Index Slowly Rises Again, But Tax Amnesty May Cloud Numbers

Illinois' economy keeps creeping slowly toward recovery according to a monthly gauge of economic performance, but the economist who calculates the University of Illinois Flash Index says an amnesty program for late taxpayers in the state may have distorted the index in November.

Fred Giertz says he made an adjustment in the index, placing it at 94.2 for the month. That's still well below the 100-level that signifies economic growth, but it's slightly higher than October's index, marking the seven straight month of similar increases.

The Flash Index is based on state tax proceeds in a given month. Giertz says if he had not adjusted the index to account for the tax amnesty program, it would have been about five points higher.


WILL - Illinois Public Media News - December 01, 2010

State Board of Education Hears Pleas from Local Educators

Area educators have issued urgent appeals for the state to maintain funding in areas ranging from transportation to early childhood education.

Champaign was the site for the last of the State Board of Education's six public hearings on the Fiscal 2012 budget. Champaign Unit 4 Chief Financial Officer Gene Logas testified that cuts to the district's early childhood program have meant 40 less students, with a waiting list of 100. He pleaded with the state board and legislature to increase funding in that area. "And the only winner is the state prison system when we don't get our children off to the best start that's possible," said Logas. "It's just such a shame to waste scare resources building prisons when we could be using that money on our youngest children. This is a just a total waste, a total lack of priorities. We should all be ashamed of ourselves." Logas also says maintaining court-mandated special education remains a very expensive proposition for many districts.

Cris Vowels is the principal at Urbana's Washington Early Childhood School. She says every year, the amount of the school's grant is questionable, and how many staff members can be re-hired. She says 70-percent of them were given Reduction in Force notices last spring.

"And so come August when I found out that we were indeed going to be fully funded, I was calling people on Friday asking them to come back to work on Monday," said Vowels. "Of course, I lost key staff members. Most particularly, my bilingual staff members who are in high demand around the state." Vowels suggests the state support a multi-year grant program for early childhood programs.

Former Champaign School Board member Margie Skirvin says the uncertainty of state payments has been the biggest problem among all districts. Representing the Illinois PTA, she says the group is backing a House bill that would shift the burden of funding education from property taxes to income taxes. Deb Foertsch, Illinois Federation of Teachers Vice President and a teacher at Champaign's Carrie Busey Elementary, says an easing of tax cap restrictions in affected districts could help save programs like bilingual and gifted education. And Jessica Schad, a second year teacher at Urbana Middle School, says she wouldn't have survived in her job if it weren't for a grant-funded mentoring program at District 116.

James Bauman, chair of the ISBE's finance committee, says most funding remains committed to general state aid, with about a billion dollars left for grant funded programs, include early childhood education. He says comments at Tuesday's Champaign hearing reflect those of others held around the state, and will help guide the State Board when it recommends an education budget to lawmakers in January.


AP - Illinois Public Media News - November 30, 2010

Quinn to Keep Temporary Jobs Program Going

Gov. Pat Quinn has pledged another $47 million to keep a temporary jobs program going while the state hopes for more federal money.

The latest infusion of cash is in addition to $75 million Quinn pledged in September to keep the Put Illinois to Work program from ending.

The extension will keep the program going through Jan. 15. Quinn's office says more than 26,000 people have gotten jobs.

The jobs program was a centerpiece of Quinn's campaign in a close election win over Republican state Sen. Bill Brady, who criticized the governor for using state money to keep it going.

The governor's office says the $47 million will come from proceeds of the bond sale of a portion of the state's tobacco settlement money.

Categories: Economics, Government, Politics

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - November 24, 2010

Healthcare Advocacy Group Assesses Financial Commission’s Proposals

A federal commission made up of members of Congress and former lawmakers is trying to reduce the nation's federal deficit by $4 trillion dollars by 2020 with changes to government programs, including Medicare and Social Security services.

Based in Washington, DC, the 18-member National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform is led by former senator Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.) and former Clinton Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles. Both leaders are backing a plan to make cuts to Medicare funding that would limit federal spending on Medicare recipients to one percent above the economy's gross domestic product. Anne Gargano Ahmed, who is with Champaign County Health Care Consumers, said under that plan, the cost for care would then be pushed onto Medicare beneficiaries with higher premiums.

"Medicare beneficiaries would then have to choose to pay higher premiums for traditional Medicare, or buying a private plan from a Medicare exchange of private insurance companies that would offer a plan as an alternative to Medicare," Ahmed explained. "These plans might have lower premiums, but they'd probably offer less coverage like many private insurance plans do now."

Illinois has two legislatures sitting on the panel: Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL). The healthcare advocacy group backs a proposal by Schakowsky calling for the creation of a Medicare-administered drug plan to compete with private plans. She also wants Medicare to use its bargaining power to negotiate for lower drug prices, a move that the Congressional Budget Office estimates will save the country $14 billion by 2015.

The financial commission is also considering a plan to increase the retirement age for full Social Security benefits to 69 by 2075. According to the non-partisan group Social Security Works, boosting the retirement age by that amount would lead to a 21-percent cut in benefits from the current retirement age of 66.

Claudia Lennhoff, executive director of Champaign County Health Care Consumers, said trimming any part of social security is the last thing the federal government should do to help cut the deficit. Lennhoff said because social security is supported by payroll deductions and not federal dollars, it does not add to the deficit.

"Social security does not contribute to the budget deficit," Lennhoff said. "So it's like trying to find an answer that wasn't part of the problem, and at great consequence to the American people, at great harm to the American people. It's simply not fair."

However, Lennhoff admitted that one area her group agrees with the commission's leaders on is raising the wage cap on the amount of money going to support Social Security. The cap is currently set at $106,800.00, and Lennhoff said increasing it would require people making more than that amount to pay more to support social security benefits.

The commission has until December 1st to finalize and vote on a plan. It must capture 14 of 18 votes among its members to adopt a budget recommendation, and send it onto Congress for consideration.

Categories: Economics, Health
Tags: economy, health

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - November 24, 2010

Unions Plan to Negotiate with Champaign City Leaders Over Job Cuts

Union workers in Champaign's fire and police departments are hoping to compromise with city leaders rather than lose staff, services, or both.

Public works employees could also be among as many as 15 positions cut, as the city looks to trim nearly $2-million from the budget in the current fiscal year, and a total of $4-point-3 million in 18 months. Champaign Police Officer Joe Johnston, 21, chairs the labor committee with the local Fraternal Order of Police. He said reducing front desk staff and the records division means he's a less effective officer.

"Can I do their job? Yes. Can I do it as well or as efficient as them? Absolutely not," Johnston said. "But I guess what I'm trying to say - the point I'm trying to make with that is by taking me or one of the other officers off the street, we have now diminished the services to the citizens of Champaign."

About 20 members from AFSCME and other unions were on hand last night to oppose the job cuts, but Council member Tom Bruno said they need to do better.

"It's not helpful to have various units of city employees come to us and say 'not us.' Anybody else but not us," Bruno said. "I don't find that particularly helpful as a problem-solving technique."

Current proposals also include reducing staff at Fire Station 4 on John Street. Carrol Whitehouse, a Campaign firefighter and union vice president, said that could mean lost response time, particularly if one of its units is already out on a fire or medical call. Whitehouse said the union wants to work out a way to avoid cutting core services, but would not say if that included taking a pay cut since his union is involved in negotiations.

"All of the funding problems are going to be generated by increases in employee compensation," Whitehouse said. "And we're willing to find ways to deal with that that will zero-out the impact of the city, but not impact the core jobs that we do."

The budget strategy endorsed by the city council in Tuesday night's study session also includes enacting a furlough program for AFSCME union workers and a voluntary separation program. Both will be discussed more in January. Champaign City Manager Steve Carter said this is the most difficult financial situation he ha seen in 40 years of working in local government. The city has already enacted $9-million in budget adjustments over the past few years.

Categories: Economics, Government, Politics

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - November 22, 2010

Rep. Johnson Calls for Troop Pullout from Afghanistan

The war in Afghanistan is nearing its 10-year anniversary, and Republican Congressman Tim Johnson of Urbana has signed a letter with three House Republicans and 57 House Democrats calling for an end to U.S. military operations in the country. The letter follows statements by the Obama administration setting 2014 as the key date when Afghan security forces should be ready to take control of defense operations.

At this weekend's NATO summit in Portugal, President Obama said he's confident the U.S. will be able to go ahead with its troop pullout plan from Afghanistan beginning in July 2011. Johnson told Illinois Public Media's Sean Powers that the war in unwinnable and dragging down the nation's debt.

(Photo courtesy of The U.S. Army/flickr)

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Categories: Economics, Government, Politics

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - November 18, 2010

U of I Board of Trustees Approves Restructuring Plan

The University of Illinois' Board of Trustees unanimously approved changes to the U of I's administrative structure during its Thursday meeting in Chicago.

The Board of Trustees gave the university the green light to hire a new vice president who will oversee the health science departments at the Chicago and Urbana campuses as well as at training clinics in Chicago, Urbana, Rockford, and Peoria.

The board also voted to expand the role of the vice president for technology and economic development to include a $716 million research portfolio that includes research on the three campuses. The office will streamline research-related policies and processes, which according to the university will eliminate redundancies.

The third proposal that the board approved was a measure that adds the title of vice president to each of the campus chancellors, and specifies that the president of the university will be known as the president of each campus.

University spokesman Tom Hardy said the administrative changes will help the U of I cut costs by allowing University President Michael Hogan to "establish clear lines of authority to begin to consolidate operations."

"You need leadership at the top to drive that process," Hogan said. "Without it, reform doesn't get done or doesn't get done effectively."

Hogan added that a strong administration will ensure the three campuses work together, and advance research opportunities while maintaining distinctive qualities that make each campus unique.

The changes come more than two weeks after the Urbana Faculty Senate rejected the restructuring plan, citing the cost of hiring an additional vice president as one area of concern.

Joyce Tolliver, who chairs the senate's Executive Committee, said the faculty senate is still concerned about some of the administrative changes, but she said she is encouraged that before each meeting, the Board of Trustees will start holding conference calls with chairs of different faculty committees on each campus. This is a move that she said will create more transparency between the Board of Trustees and the rest of the U of I community.

"It's not that there's anything that we asked about before that we're not concerned about now," Tolliver said. "All the questions are still there, but what I am confident about is that they will be answered going forward."

The Board of Trustees targeted a 2012 goal of reducing the university's administrative costs by five-to-ten percent.

Some of the recommendations for consolidating 'back-office' administrative functions throughout the University were outlined in a June report by the Administrative Review and Restructuring (ARR) working group, which made 43 recommendations for potentially $58 million in cost savings.

Categories: Economics, Education, Health

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - November 17, 2010

Police Training Institute Expected to Close By End of Year

The University of Illinois plans to close its Police Training Institute by the end of 2011.

The decision to eliminate the training facility comes after a budget review panel raised concerns about the institute's long term economic stability.

The latest in a series of Urbana campus reviews looking at cost-saving measures at the U of I said there is no justification for the university to provide $900,000 a year to train police officers.

"We believe this decision to be necessary because we cannot justify using resources to fund PTI that derive from student tuition and the shrinking state funding available for our core education and research missions," according to the 'Next Steps' letter released by Interim Chancellor and Provost Robert Easter and Interim Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs as part of a recent 'Stewarding Excellence' report. "Fundamentally, our primary mission of educating lllinois' undergraduate, graduate and professional students must remain a priority."

U of I spokeswoman Robin Kaler said the university can no longer rely on tuition dollars to keep the program going.

"The university has a very proud history of supporting law enforcement training," Kaler said. "Funding for this purpose hasn't kept pace with the increase in costs, and so we had to review where this kind of training falls within the missions and the priorities of the campus as a whole."

With the closure of the 55-year-old training program, Champaign County Sheriff Dan Walsh predicts that police training will be moved to the Illinois State Police Training Academy in Springfield. Walsh, who was trained at the PTI and now teaches there, said it is unfortunate that the program will leave the university.

"I think it is advantageous to have it part of the University of Illinois because the police officers then at least socially during the 12 weeks there here can interact with students from literally around the world," Walsh said. "I think it's a good thing for diversity training."

The PTI has cut its expenses by 45 percent in the last three years, and the report said the institute could improve its cost structure by trimming $666,251 from its budget. Still, the commission said the chances that the institute will latch onto additional funding or new partnerships are slim. The PTI is considered Illinois' flagship training facility.

(Photo courtesy of the Police Training Institute)


WILL - Illinois Public Media News - November 16, 2010

Citizens Utility Board Urges Consumers, Companies to Cut Cell Phone Rates

Following Verizon Wireless' announcement in October that it would refund customers $53 million in unnecessary charges, the Citizens Utility Board (CUB) has come out with a report assessing Illinois' wireless industry.

The study found that cell phone users could save around $360 a year by identifying billing errors, cutting down on the number of available minutes, and not paying extra for cell phone insurance or roadside assistance.

Bryan McDaniel, a senior policy analyst with CUB, said high wireless rates are costing Champaign residents more than $13 million a year. Across the state he said it is much higher at just under a billion dollars. McDaniel said trimming cell phone bills could help the state's sluggish economy, as businesses struggle to stay afloat.

"If we didn't give that $13 million to the cell phone companies, and instead to local businesses and mom and pop shops, that'd be a good thing for our economy," McDaniel said. "Unfortunately every month, we're throwing away money to these cell phone companies when we don't need to be."

According to the report, the wireless industry should start providing more flexible plans, so that people are not deadlocked into paying extra for features that they do not want.

"Allow people to have 150 minute plans," McDaniel said. "I can't tell you the number of seniors I've talked to who just want a simple 100 minute plan that they can't get anymore."

McDaniel added that consumers also have a responsibility to trim their cell phone rates. He explained that they can visit Cellphone Saver, a free online service that allows users to upload an online copy of their wireless bills - AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile, and U.S. Cellular. Within a few seconds, the website spits out an analysis showing consumers how to cut their costs. The study used the web service to track data from August 2009 though July 2010.

(Photo courtesy of Major Clanger/flickr)

Categories: Business, Economics, Technology

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