Illinois Public Media News
A new operator is now formally in place for a pork processing plant that shut its doors more than a year ago.
Trim Rite Food Corporation is based in the Chicago suburbs -- produces hams, pork loins and other cuts for stores and restaurants. It's agreed to lease, retool and reopen the former Meadowbrook Farms plant west of Rantoul for 5.6 million dollars.
The state Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity says Trim Rite plans to hire about 100 people for the plant later this fall -- the state agency has chipped in $767,000 in tax credits based on job creation and training.
Meadowbrook Farms was a farmer-owned cooperative that ran into financial difficulty soon after it opened the pork processing plant in 2004.
The Democratic and Republican candidates for Illinois treasurer are sparring over campaign contributions.
During a stop in Bloomington, Il. on Saturday, Republican State Senator Dan Rutherford of Pontiac accused his Democratic opponent, Robin Kelly, of accepting campaign contributions from banks, and he cautioned her to follow the state's campaign finance laws.
Kelly, who is the chief of staff for current treasurer Alexi Giannoulias, said Rutherford has violated campaign finance laws, and she added that there is no reason for him to be concerned because she has taken an ethics pledge to not take any money from banks or bank executives.
"I have not taken any money from any bank owners or any banks, whether we have contracts with them or not," said Kelly, who admitted that she has taken campaign contributions from banks during her time in the Illinois legislature. "I take money from bank PACS, but we don't do business with bank PACS. I think they've given me $500 hundred dollars."
Kelly accused Rutherford in September of violating pay-to-play laws by accepting $3,500 in contributions from several banks that do business with the treasurer's office. Rutherford later returned about $900 in contributions from Pan American Bank, which bid on a contract worth more than $50,000.
State law forbids candidates from accepting contributions from businesses bidding that much money. Rutherford said at the time he accepted the contribution, information about the contract was not made public by Kelly's office, but the treasurer's office maintains that it was public information with the Office of the Comptroller and the State Board of Elections.
With a month to go until election day, both candidates say they need to cover more ground before November 2nd. Rutherford said he plans on focusing his campaign in the Chicago region counties of Cook, Lake, Will, Kane, McHenry, and Dupage. Kelly said she plans to continue targeting the entire state. The third party candidates in the race include Libertarian James Pauly and Green Party candidate Scott Summers.
(Photos by Sean Powers/WILL)
Governor Pat Quinn's running mate said Illinois fiscal crisis will require more and "progressively harder" budget cuts in the year ahead.
Democratic Lieutenant Governor candidate Sheila Simon said Quinn has proven he has the political courage to balance the budget --- because of his record of support cutting spending, while proposing a controversial hike in the state income tax.
Speaking to reporters at the Illinois News Broadcasters' Association convention in Bloomington over the weekend, Simon said the voters she has been meeting around the state are ready for the difficult choices ahead.
"I think most folks know that what's coming up ahead of us is not Easy Street," said Simon. "There's going to be some sacrifice involved, in places where probably everyone can say, 'wow, I wish you didn't have to cut there.'"
Simon chided Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Brady for refusing to propose specific budget cuts until he was elected and had made a thorough audit of state spending.
When reminded that Governor Quinn had not yet released full details of the spending cuts he has made so far, Simon said that those cuts were plainly visible to the people around the state directly affected by them. Simon noted the governor's cuts in state leasing and travel by government employees.
Sheila Simon is the daughter of the late U.S. Senator Paul Simon. Her opponents for lieutenant governor are Republican businessman Jason Plummer, the Green Party's Don W. Crawford, Libertarian Ed Rutledge, and independent Baxter Swilley - who is the running mate of Scott Lee Cohen.
(Photo by Sean Powers/WILL)
Pilot training at the University of Illinois' Willard Airport will go on for now, but its future is not guaranteed if academic faculty at the Institute of Aviation are reassigned elsewhere.
As part of a campus-wide cost-savings program, a committee has recommended that all academic curricula at the Institute be either discontinued or transferred elsewhere on campus.
Interim chancellor and provost Robert Easter says the Urbana Campus Senate will be asked to approve the changes - but so far, he says no place on campus has been found for the Aviation Institute's Human Factors degree program.
However, Easter stresses that current students have nothing to worry about. "We feel that when we accept a student into a program, we take on an obligation to provide the educational experiences that get them to the degree they plan to take," said Easter. "We would just stop.accepting new students."
Easter says a consulting firm based on campus will study the feasibility of existing pilot training at Willard without the academic program.
The changes have sparked concerns that air traffic would fall off considerably at Willard - enough to endanger the future of commercial air service. Easter says the committee found little evidence to support that. Though federal regulators may drop the rating of the airport's control tower, he says it wouldn't reduce operating hours, which airlines rely on for passenger service.
Champaign County Administrator Deb Busey said lagging state dollars and a poor economy mean further cuts to county departments, but she said departments are being asked to make 4% average cuts for fiscal 2011. She said they should be able to maintain their current level of services.
The full budget plan will be unveiled next month, with a vote by the county board in November. Some county departments have already seen furlough days, including the State's Attorney's Office, Court Services, the Supervisor of Assessments, and Emergency Management. Many positions were also left vacant. Decreased revenues, including state income tax dollars, have led to the new cuts, but she said she believes the worst is over.
"From this point forward, hopefully with some stabilization of the economy, we should be able to maintain this going forward," she said. "We don't anticipate a great deal of growth anytime in the near future, but hopefully we've reached the point where have reached the point where we should not have to continue cutting."
She said part of that preparation is also knowing to expect less and less in state revenues.
"This budget anticipates a fairly substantial reduction in state revenues," said Busey. "This budget is balanced, with the anticipation that those revenues are going to continue to be at a lower level than what we saw in 2008, and prior to that."
Busey added only possible impact on the public from the new cuts could come in a delay of requests for information.
Details of a new teachers' contract in Danville have been released, following its approval by the District 118 school board Wednesday night. Union members ratified the contract last week.
The first year of the agreement includes one-time bonuses both for certified and non-certified staff, but no increases in base salary or automatic increases, according to a 'step pay' schedule . The second year does include step pay increases.
However, if talks on a new contract in 2012 drag on past July 1st, like they did for this contract, Danville teachers returning in September will not be getting step pay increases until a new contract is reached, according to District 118 superintendent Mark Denman.
"In the past, with the salary schedule, if we were still negotiating in September, people automatically move up," he explained. "It's not that they won't move up in the future, but there will be no increase until both sides can complete their negotiations."
The new contract keeps health insurance and retirement benefits basically the same as they have been. The contract also calls for a special committee to develop a plan that bases pay on student performance. Denman said the committee's findings could be implemented in a future contract.
Denman said compromise was the trademark of the new contract, and that neither side got everything it wanted. The Danville school board also approved a separate contract for secretaries and learning resource clerks.
As Illinois tries to grapple with a $13 billion budget deficit, Illinois republican leaders say their party's gubernatorial nominee, Bill Brady, should re-consider his opposition to a tax increase.
Speaking on the University of Illinois campus in Urbana on Wednesday, Illinois Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno noted that budget cuts will need to be made by whoever is elected in November. However, she said that raising taxes could still be a possibility to generate more revenue.
"Before we talk about any sort of revenue enhancement, we need to make sure that all the cuts that can be made have been done," she said. "After we've done all of that and we assess where we're at, then we have to make a decision about whether or not there needs to be a tax increase."
Governor Pat Quinn, Brady's Democratic opponent, is eying a 33% income tax hike to ease cuts he has already proposed. The Green Party's Rich Whitney is also in favor of an income tax increase, while independent gubernatorial candidate Scott Lee Cohen and Libertarian party candidate Lex Green will not support one.
Former republican governor Jim Edgar said if Brady is elected, he thinks the realities of the job will impact Brady's strategy to solving the state's fiscal mess.
"I don't think anybody should figure that he's able at this point to completely outline point-by-point what he would do if he becomes governor with the budget," he explained. "I couldn't when I was running in 1990."
Brady and Quinn are in a tight race. A recent Rasmussen poll finds Brady picking up half of likely voters, 37% going to Quinn, Whitney earning four percent of support, and ten percent of voters stating that they are undecided or preferring another candidate.
(Photo by Sean Powers/WILL)
More than a dozen social service agencies strapped for cash are getting an infusion of money from a religious organization.
It's the second year, the campus-based Illinois Disciples Foundation (IDF) has given out money from its endowment. This year $189,000 is going to 14 groups that range from the Wesley Evening Food Pantry to Crisis Nursery to the Greater Community AIDS Project. The group's director, Jen Tayabji, said many of those groups face a funding slowdown thanks to the recession.
"Some of it is state funding that's been cut or payments that are behind, and a lot of grant-making organizations have cut grants altogether because their endowments have lost so much money," Tayabji said. "So to be able to give these grants makes a huge impact on these organizations, and they've been very grateful for the money they can get."
Mary Ann Daly is a resident at Rantoul's Generations of Hope, where seniors volunteer to live near and assist troubled children. She said she agrees that charitable funding is crucial.
"We do save the state money, but it still is a very expensive program," Daly said. "We have to have social workers and therapists and people there to to work with these kids."
Tayabji said the IDF's endowment has grown despite weak investment performance - in part because the group sold off its former building on campus two years ago.
Champaign County Clerk Mark Shelden will follow through with plans to make a vacant storefront the early voting site for the University of Illinois campus.
Shelden said he will sign a lease Tuesday to use the property on South Gregory Street, instead of the Illini Union's Pine Lounge. County Board Democrats and the U of I Student Senate oppose the move, saying state law dictates that the location of the polling site should be in a high traffic location, like the Union.
A spokesman for Illinois Senate President John Cullerton also said public universities are legally obligated to provide the space, and that local elections officials will work with them.
However, Shelden said political activity in the Illini Union make it an unsuitable location for early voting, and he added the U of I cannot afford what state law mandates.
"Maybe if the state legislature properly funded the University or if Lincoln Hall wasn't in the middle of renovation, and had been completed like it should have been 4 or 5 years ago," he said. "I can give a variety of ways in which the university could have less problems with space if the state of Illinois had done what they were supposed to do."
Champaign Senator Mike Frerichs was a sponsor of a law ensuring that public universities will provide polling places. He said Shelden is trying to 'flout' state law by using the Gregory site for polling. Frerichs also said it 'smells' that the building is owned by JSM Development. One of that company's principals is former Champaign County Republican Chair Steve Hartman.
"This University did offer the space for free," said Frerichs. "He would rather pay money to a private developer than take the space for free, and that doesn't make sense."
Shelden said he did not base his decision decision on politics, but rather, finding a convenient location for voters at an affordable price. It will cost his $800 to lease the site.
A team assigned with looking at the best use of space on the University of Illinois' Urbana campus says classrooms need to be better set up with high-tech equipment.
U of I Physics chair Dale Van Harlingen led a team to examine Space Utilization, the last area to be reviewed this year as part of the 'Stewarding Excellence' initiative to trim expenses. Van Harlingen says space is handled well for the most part, and that unit administrators should have the greatest say over how classrooms are used. But he says it's bad for a campus of the U of I's stature to have classrooms that don't equal the facilities of where students learned previously. "The students have come to expect that," said Van Harlingen. "They come from high schools where large investments have been made in technology. And we should be matching that. We should be a model for that. We felt like there should be more space, more attention given to building buildings specifically for teaching - lecture halls, and classroom space instead of only responding to needs of donors."
Van Harlingen says a long-term problem of failing to invest in maintenance is partly to blame when being squeezed for space. Buildings like Lincoln Hall and a portion of the Natural History Building aren't being used now because of structural problems. "I think there's always going to be debate," said Van Harlingen. "I think everyone agreed you should renovate Lincoln Hall. But the question becomes - how far down that list do you go? Because for the same cost of renovating Lincoln Hall, you could build probably several, very good modern teaching facilities."
Van Harlingen also recommends that committees be formed to study space needs in more detail, and get out of all leased space in the Champaign-Urbana area.
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