Illinois Public Media News

AP - Illinois Public Media News - August 25, 2010

Vermilion County Health Department Aims to End Friday Furloughs by October

The administrator of the Vermilion County Health Department said she hopes finances will allow her staff to return to a 5-day a week schedule in just over month.

Shirley Hicks said the Friday furlough days that started in June haven't reduced the volume of work. A lack of state funds forced the department to become a minimum certified facility that month, offering a handful of services, including immunizations, emergency planning, and the Women, Infants, and Children or WIC program. But Hicks said the department still has the same clients in those areas, noting the work has not been furloughed.

"High-risk restaurants - they need inspection three times a year," said Hicks. "Can you do all of those kinds of things? And what are doing on complaint calls? How effectively can you go out and respond to issues of communicable disease if you're not available three of seven days?"

At issue is continued budget problems caused by cash flow from the state. Hicks said in addition to that backlog of about $400,000, her department still owes Vermilion County for roughly half of a $300,000 loan made last year. County Board Chairman Jim McMahon said the county will help the department if it keeps the 4-day schedule, but not with a 5-day a week plan. McMahon said the funds that have come back from the state have led Hicks to believe that the health department can resume a normal work week in about six weeks.

"I don't share the same confidence, but at the same time, you have to let managers be managers," said McMahon. "So if you make that decision and go back to five days, basically what you're saying is you no longer would need the county board's help. So if you're saying that, you're back to five days - everybody's happy."

McMahon said if county decided to stick with the 4-day a week schedule, the county will provide 'whatever means necessary' to maintain a minimum certified health department to maintain services like immunizations and restaurant inspections.


AP - Illinois Public Media News - August 24, 2010

GOP Candidates Endorse Merging Two Financial Offices

The Republican candidates for Illinois Treasurer and Comptroller say they're confident that consolidating the two offices will not only save the state money, but be done in a system with checks and balances.

Former Treasurer Judy Barr Topinka and Pontiac Senator Dan Rutherford say merging the positions will save the state 12-million dollars by trimming jobs, office space, and saving communication time when investing money. Campaigning in Urbana Tuesday, Topinka says it used to be that way, when Illinois simply had a state auditor. A person in the office in the 1950's... Orville Hodge... was convicted and sentenced to prison for embezzlement. Topinka says the two offices were created for oversight, but adds that's what the office of auditor general is for now. "He (William Holland) serves in that function of oversight. Second of all, becase of the high-tech computerization, we have the same numbers."

If they're elected, Topinka and Rutherford say they'll actively campaign for the change before lawmakers next year. If lawmakers approve the change, it would require voter approval in November 2012. If the question passes, the single financial officer would be on the ballot two years later. And during their time in office, "Communication will be key," said Rutherford. "Because of our relationship, we will talk about when she's gonna disperse and when I can make funds available. But the thing is, someday Judy and Dan aren't gonna be there, there will be a different personality, and we want to have this thing fixed for the future."

Illinois' Democratic candidates for Treasurer and Comptroller, Robin Kelly and David Miller, have also gone on record supporting the idea. Kelly contends she first proposed merging the offices, but the GOP candidates say press reports indicate she was only exploring such a plan until recently.

Categories: Economics, Government, Politics

AP - Illinois Public Media News - August 20, 2010

Mahomet Seymour Strike Ends with a Tentative Contract Agreement

Teachers in the Mahomet Seymour schools will be back in their classrooms on Monday as a two-day strike ends with a tentative contract agreement.

The chief negotiator for the Mahomet Seymour Education Association, Linda Meachum, said school board negotiators offered a compromise Friday afternoon that led to the breakthrough. Meachum said teachers will receive 2.6% pay raise this school year. She said support staff and teacher's aides will get 3.5%.

But the two sides will have to negotiate again next year because the tentative contract is only for one year. Meachum said she believes that's important for both the district and the union.

"At least this way we know what we can live with for one year, and the board can begin to strategically plan for the future," Meachum said shortly after negotiations wrapped up. "We know that some (federal) stimulus money is coming in to the district, and we'll have a better idea of what our fund balance is going to be." Meachum also noted that the state's now-delayed payment schedule to schools might be clearer in a year.

Terry Greene, the president of the Mahomet Seymour school board, says the district had lobbied against a two-year contract but let go of that requirement as union bargainers compromised.

"They agreed to a one-year deal that we thought was responsible and fiscally fair," Greene said. "We want our kids back in school. Usually if you make a deal in which both sides are are a little unhappy it's probably the right deal, and that's just about what happened." But Greene still contends that the deal could have been sealed much earlier in the bargaining process.

Meachum said a ratification vote for the union's 260 members is set for Monday afternoon, after the first day back in class. The school board will cast its vote later that evening.

Categories: Economics, Education, Politics

AP - Illinois Public Media News - August 19, 2010

As School Starts, UI Administrators and Employees Grapple with Money Issues

Labor unrest is affecting higher education, including University of Illinois campuses in Urbana and Chicago

Members of one UIUC union rallied Thursday outside a residence hall just as freshmen are moving in for their first semester. Ricky Baldwin is an organizer for the Service Employees International Union, which represents about 1000 employees. He claims that administrative cost increases are taking place while union members have seen their pay stagnate.

"The money that the University is spending on all kinds of things at the top shows us that the university does have money," said Baldwin "It just doesn't want to spend it on the basic operations -- the students, the workers, the instruction at the university."

The SEIU and the U of I are in contract talks... but members say they are not close to striking in Urbana. That cannot be said in Chicago, where about 3000 SEIU employees are threatening a Monday walkout.

At another hall complex Thursday, U of I president Michael Hogan and chancellor Robert Easter met incoming students. During the visit, Hogan said the university faces the prospect of more budget cuts and state payment delays, making salary increases even harder to achieve.

"We've just taken another 46 million dollar reduction in our budget, so that's the subject of ongoing negotiations, and I certainly hope we can reach a settlement," Hogan said. He says it's unlikely the school will see any of its current-year funding from Springfield until next January at the earliest. He says he's been assured that all of the U of I's fiscal-2010 funds will be in their hands in the next few months.


AP - Illinois Public Media News - August 19, 2010

Mahomet-Seymour Teachers Approve Strike Hours Before 1st School Day

Mahomet-Seymour teachers are going on strike, cancelling all classes and school activities until further notice.

An 11th hour meeting between the union and school district failed Wednesday night - the fourth meeting with a federal mediator. Union Co-President Joan Jordan said administrators left without responding to their latest contract proposal. She said the Mahomet Seymour Education Association's 1-year plan is essentially the first year of a 2-year proposal proposed by the district one night earlier. It includes a 3-point-1 percent average increase in the teacher salary schedule. Jordan said the district refuses to budge from a 2-year contract.

"And because they keep crying poor and saying they just don't have the money... and they have the money, but we're going to decimate all their funds, which isn't true either." said Jordan. "We gave them what they wanted, we just don't want more than one year. Because if things are so uncertain, then we need to bargain again starting in December when we know better what's coming from the state. "

Jordan said administrators plan on meeting with the union again at 6:30 Thursday evening.

Mahomet-Seymour School Board President Terry Greene said the union is putting the district's financial health at risk by asking for unreasonable raises and benefits. He said it is hard to deal with a moving target, adding that the union changed its proposal late Tuesday after it appeared a tentative deal was in place, and he said one contract proposal would mean $700,000 in deficit spending in one year.

"This board of education won't support that, and I don't think our community will support that," said Greene. "So just because we have a fund balance and cash reserve that we've worked years to build up to protect ourselves for difficult times - which we're in, doesn't mean it belongs to the MSEA. Just because we have it doesn't mean it's theirs. It belongs to the taxpayers."

The school board has scheduled a special meeting for Friday to allow the continuation of sports and other activities during a work stoppage. Mahomet-Seymour's first home football game is scheduled for a week from Friday. Administrators say this is the first teacher strike at Mahomet-Seymour schools.

Categories: Economics, Education, Politics

AP - Illinois Public Media News - August 17, 2010

Urbana Motor Fuel Tax Passes, Will Take Effect Oct. 1

It will cost an extra 2-cents a gallon to buy gas in Urbana, beginning October 1st.

The local motor fuel tax proposed by Mayor Laurel Prussing last spring was approved by the city council Monday night on a 4-to-3 vote. The tax going towards street maintenance and safety will generate $340,000 annually. An escalator of 0.4 cents will kick in each July for three years, bringing that total to about $544,000 dollars by 2013, but the gas tax will be up for review each of those years. The vote among council members mirrored that of a study session a week earlier.

Alderwoman Heather Stevenson has always opposed the plan, saying this may actually mean she buys her gas and does her shopping elsewhere.

"If I'm in Champaign, I'm going to purchase items over there that I possibly could purchase in Urbana." said Stevenson. "So I think it's not about traveling a mile to save money on gas, it's about saving money... and spending money - tax dollars - in another area."

Stevenson says the council needed to explore alternatives to the tax to pay for road improvements. Urbana resident Bob Bosshart opposed it, saying it will hurt the middle income during the recession.

Alderman Dennis Roberts supported what he calls a 'gentle tax' but admits passing any off on residents during a recession is tough.

"It'll be reviewed, and it is important to be self-sustaining and take care of your own streets as a municipality." said Roberts. "But I also realize that all taxes are a burden to people who are using them, so this is not the easiest vote."

Mayor Laurel Prussing says other towns enacting the tax hadn't seen an increase in gas prices when compared to neighboring communities. She proposed the tax last spring because she says state motor fuel tax dollars haven't increased in 20 years, while the cost of road repairs have more than doubled.

The gas tax also earned the approval of AFSCME Council 31's Michael Wilmore, who says union members from Urbana's Public Works Department work hard to make the city a safe place to live and travel.

Categories: Economics, Government, Politics

AP - Illinois Public Media News - August 16, 2010

Mahomet-Seymour Teacher Talks Break Down, Strike Vote is Scheduled

Teachers in the Mahomet-Seymour School District could vote to go on strike on Wednesday, the day before classes are to begin.

The two sides are at an impasse after meeting twice over the weekend with a federal mediator, in meetings that latest about 12 hours total. The teacher's union currently has a strike vote scheduled for Wednesday afternoon.

The President of the Mahomet-Seymour Education Association, Joan Jordan, said while the two sides have seen agreement in more areas, teachers' primary concern is insurance. She said the school board's proposed increase is 90-percent less than what was paid in previous contracts, meaning higher premiums for its members. Jordan said that means union members making as little as $16,500 would see a loss in pay.

"They've got money. They don't want to spend it." said Jordan. "But there are real people with lives attached to this though. I just hope that they'll come back and offer us what they should have started with."

The teacher's union has rejected the district's offer for a 2-year contract with salary increases of more than 2-percent for the first year... and just over 3-percent for the second. School Board President Terry Greene called the offer 'extremely generous' considering the economic times. The union proposed a 5-percent raise in the current year and 6-percent the next. Greene said combining that with the insurance teachers are seeking, that means Mahomet Seymour would be cutting programs, laying off employees, and class sizes would 'explode' a year from now.

"The days of 5 and 6-percent salary increases, at least for the short term, are over." said Greene. "And Cadillac insurance plans for families, while it would be nice to provide that, we don't have enough money in our school district to solve that problem."

Jordan said the union hopes to meet again with the board prior to Thursday.

Categories: Economics, Education, Politics

AP - Illinois Public Media News - August 11, 2010

Congressman Still Holds Out Hope for Mattoon-based FutureGen, Blasts DOE

Urbana Congressman Tim Johnson says he holds out hope the Department of Energy officials will visit Mattoon despite the community's desire to move on.

The Republican has been urging the DOE to reverse its decision since last week's announcement to make the city a storage site rather than home to a new coal-fired power plant. Johnson says Department Assistant Secretary James Markowski made a commitment to him Tuesday that Energy Secretary Steven Chu would still come to Mattoon. "He said he said he'd come here, so I can only take him at his word." said Johnson. "However, given the lack of credibity of the Department of Energy in this whole decision making process, their lack of transparency and lack of communication with me, I've come to not believe anything they would tell me. So the fact he said he would come, or at least his undersecretary said he'd come, is just about as believable as the fact he told us in April he'd keep us posted on an hour by hour basis."

Johnson has called the Department of Energy's decision an 'absolute betrayal' of lawmakers like him that have pushed for the FutureGen project for years. He says Coles Together made the right decision to reject the new FutureGen, adding that the reconfigured project involving a power plant in Western Illinois likely won't happen either. Johnson calls FutureGen 2.0 a bureaucratic effort to 'kick the can further down the road.


AP - Illinois Public Media News - August 10, 2010

Senator Durbin Gives Mattoon Officials Until the End of the Week to Accept Revamped FutureGen

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin is demanding that Mattoon officials decide by the end of the week whether they want to be part of the revised FutureGen clean-coal project.

Durbin made the demand Monday in a letter to Angela Griffin. She leads the Coles Together economic development group in Coles County. "We need to make sure that we understand exactly what FutureGen 2.0 represents," said Griffin. "We need to make sure that we've considered everthing - that we haven't eliminated something from consideration that's important. We need to consider the immediate impact, and we need to consider the long-term impact. This project as presented has several faces to it, and we need to consider what DOE's (The Department of Energy's) long-term plans are for a carbon storage system in Mattoon." But Griffin says she holds no ill will towards Senator Durbin, who she notes worked for this project and the Mattoon community for years, at a time when many others in Washington turned their backs on it.

Until last week FutureGen included a power plant to be built in Mattoon with carbon dioxide from its coal stored underground. The Department of Energy now wants to retrofit a plant across the state in Meredosia. Mattoon would store carbon dioxide from that plant. The department has said it needs to finalize revisions by Sept. 30 to use $1.1 billion in stimulus funds. Durbin says the Department of Energy needs to find a new carbon storage site if Mattoon isn't interested. Urbana Congressman Tim Johnson says his request to meet with Energy Secretary Steven Chu about the changes has been turned down.


AP - Illinois Public Media News - August 09, 2010

Champaign School Board Approves New Contract

The Champaign School Board has unanimously approved a new three-year contract for nearly 500 support staff. This comes six months after negotiations began between the Champaign Educational Support Professionals union and the school district, and more than a month after the old contract expired.

The contract includes a 65 cent pay raise for teaching assistants after one year, and a 50 cent increase each year for the following two years. Board President Dave Tomlinson says teacher assistants in Champaign have traditionally made less money compared to aides in nearby school districts.

"We tried to bring them up to a comparable area over the three year period," he said, adding that teacher's aides are with students as much as teachers are during a seven hour day.

The contract also covers other positions, including custodians, maintenance personnel, and food service workers. They will see their annual salaries go up by around two-point-two percent.

Union President Mary Logsdon was congratulated by members of the school board, including Tomlinson and Superintendent Arthur Culver. Logsdon described the new contract as a victory for the union given the state's financial crisis, but she added that many of its members were not completely satisfied with the final outcome.

"You know, there are still people out there who are going to have to work two or three jobs in order to pay their bills," she said. "We're only going to get so much."

Tomlinson said he anticipates the school board cutting about two million dollars from the budget next year. Students are scheduled to return to class on August 19th.

Categories: Economics, Education

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