Illinois Public Media News
Nearly 70 years after opening as a site for producing explosives, about 7,000 acres in Western Indiana are now being prepared for industry. The US Army held a deactivation ceremony yesterday to signal the closure of the Newport Chemical Depot.
When Terry Arthur came to work there 1993, she was told her job would last five years, as the Army set out to store and dispose of the chemical nerve agent VX.
But the 9-11 terrorist attacks brought about a new age... and changed a lot of jobs there as about 200 soldiers were brought into secure the Depot. Illinois Public Media's Jeff Bossert spoke with Arthur:
The federal stimulus program was lucrative for the University of Illinois, but less so for government agencies in Champaign County.
A report from the county regional planning commission says more than $162 million in stimulus funding rolled into the county in 2009. But nearly $96 million of that was for the U of I, mainly for research projects according to commission planner Susan Chavarria. $16 million of the total was for infrastructure projects, mostly road construction and improvements.
Chavarria says it's hard to compare whether Champaign County got more or less than other areas of the state or nation. "Smaller communities and smaller counties, they usually don't have the resources to go through the application processes or to take the time to look for the funding sources," Chavarria said. "So in terms of our ability to do that, I think that we have perhaps received more than some of the other downstate counties. For the $546 million that we asked for, our expectations were we'll take what we can get, so I think we've received a fair amount of funding here."
Chavarria says even the U of I assistance indirectly benefits the community in the jobs it ensures for researchers and students. She says stimulus assistance to the county also came in the form of government contracts and business loans.
One Champaign city council member says she's hoping city staff will take some time to clarify a measure that seeks to speed up enforcement of standards for vacant buildings.
The plan is to remedy problems with empty commercial and residential properties without having to go through a drawn-out court process. Council member Marci Dodds says she backs the plan overall, but says the language lacked clarity as to how property owners get back into compliance after getting their building back up to standards. The city council and public discussed the measure for more than three hours in Tuesday night's study session. Dodds says neighborhood service staff should have written the ordinance to say buildings should meet fire safety codes, and not all property codes. "Do you have to bring your plumbing up to current code in a vacant building? Well, no you don't," said Dodds. "But you have to make sure that holes are patched in the wall, the roof's not going to fall in on firemen if they go in, people aren't going to fall through the floor, that kind of thing. Those are two very different standards. And I think that standard needs to be clear. I also think it needed to be clear what triggered going into a building."
Tom Bruno agrees there's a problem with irresponsible property owners and vacant structures, saying there may need to be more details in the proposal. But he says the neighborhood services department needs to be allowed to do its job. "We have inspectors in the field who are trained and comfortable and qualified at exercising some judgment," said Bruno. "And that a lot of the detailed minutia that people are seeking in this ordinance I don't necessarily needs to be there as long as our enforcement people are well-intentioned, well-trained, and well-able to exercise some discretion."
Property maintenance inspector Michael Lambert says the key is finding what triggers use of the ordinance. He says his staff will try to clarify some of its language, and have it back before the council soon.
Governor Pat Quinn's signature extends the power to borrow money to Illinois' community colleges.
Earlier this week legislation that the governor signed gave the same ability to state universities - nearly all public higher education institutions are awaiting backlogged payments from the state, and many of those schools say the delays have prompted them to cut budgets and scrape to make payroll.
In signing the borrowing authority bill in Danville Wednesday, Governor Quinn said the two-year schools now have another tool to work through the state's budget crisis. Republican Representative Bill Black admits that the new borrowing power is only a Band-Aid.
"I know some of you in the media looked at the three bills and said 'this doesn't solve all the problems' -- no it doesn't, and I don't think the governor will give any the indication that it does," Black said. "But they're all small steps that we can take, and when the state gets back on its feet - and it will -- I think the bills he's signing today will help."
Two other bills the Governor signed Wednesday allow more frequent state payments to community colleges and let the state Community College Board limit some travel reimbursements. Colleges would still have to get the approval of their trustees to issue more bonds.
Two Democratic Champaign County Board members say there's been a real sense of cooperation with employee unions as the county seeks out more than a million dollars in cuts.
Both Labor Subcommittee Chair Sam Smucker and committee member Brendan McGinty say there's no sense of urgency in getting an agreement approved. 127 employees, including 70 union workers, are expected to take furlough days in the next fiscal year. Smucker says the county is trying to avoid layoffs, and without naming specifics, says both sides have discussed a number of other mechanisms to make up for a lack of state funds. "I think all of them have been discusseed publicly and privately, and again, the thing that's most heartening is I think the employees really do recognize the situation that the county's in and are coming to the table with that sort of seriousness."
McGinty says departments did a good job of avoiding layoffs and furloughs last year by trimming travel and training budgets. And he says department heads have left the equivalent of one payroll off their budgets for the last six months. "They handled that in different ways," said McGinty. "But we've done it, for all intents and purposes, with minimal impact to our work force. And that's been a real show of cooperative spirit between the employees and department heads and elected officials."
Smucker says he hopes any additional cost-saving measures will put Champaign County in a position to provide regular raises a couple of years from now. The majority of the union workers impacted by furloughs are clerical staff. Another $600,000 in cuts may be required, but county officials are waiting to see if the flow of funds from state appropriations and county fees improve.
The Champaign County Board's Labor Subcommittee meets again Thursday afternoon.
Gov. Pat Quinn isn't saying exactly how he plans to cut state spending to close the multibillion dollar budget gap --- only that he's going to.
Just days after Illinois lawmakers left many key spending decisions up to Quinn, the governor said Tuesday only that he's willing to make the tough cuts that lawmakers are unwilling to make.
But when pressed for details, Quinn talked only about how some costs will be trimmed through furlough days for lawmakers and himself and a reduction in travel expenses for state workers. Those steps don't come close to closing a $13 billion budget shortfall.
Quinn was clear on what he does not want to cut and hopes he won't have to cut much: education, public safety, human services and health care.
That would rule out cuts to most of the state budget.
The University of Illinois Flash Index recorded its lowest level since September.
The index fell in May to 90.6, its second consecutive month in decline following a six month increase. Fred Giertz of the Institute of Government and Public Affairs compiles the Flash Index. He said the drop isn't attributable to any one cause.
The recovery is kind of slowing and not as strong as people thought and hoped," Giertz said. "May was also a bad month for the stock market, so I think there's some lack of confidence now. It's been too much of a downturn. Next month it will be important to see where it goes from there."
Giertz says he expects the economy to get better but it will be a slow process. He says unemployment is still high and the state is going to experience a more painful recovery than it has experienced in recessions in roughly the past 20 years.
The Flash Index is a weighted average based on state corporate, personal income and sales tax receipts. Any number below 100 indicates economic contraction.
Illinois lawmakers have approved a budget and returned home, but they refused to give Governor Pat Quinn all he wanted.
Over the past few weeks it became clear Governor Pat Quinn's efforts to get a tax increase were being pushed aside. Instead, Quinn pinned his hopes on borrowing nearly 4 billion dollars. The proceeds would go into public employee pension systems, freeing up tax dollars that could be used on various needs like schools. One problem was that Quinn was unable to convince enough legislators to give him borrowing authority. The majority party Democrats in the Senate still needed Republican help, and they didn't get it, angering Senate President John Cullerton. "We don't have any Republican votes like they did in the House," Cullerton said following the session.
The House narrowly approved borrowing earlier in the week, getting a pair of Republicans to go along. Cullerton says he envisions returning to the Capitol in a couple of weeks, before the new fiscal year begins.
The Senate failure means Quinn will have to try again or try to manage the state's $13 billion deficit with $4 billion to spend. Democrats could also vote to skip the payment altogether, a move Quinn says would be more costly in the long run.
The General Assembly is back in Springfield this week, with the House back Monday and the Senate in on Wednesday.
Legislators' main mission is to pass a new budget. The Illinois House will convene after an approximately two week long break to work on a budget with the same framework as the spending plan that has already passed the Senate. That plan relies on some cuts and granting Governor Pat Quinn extraordinary authority to make more financial decisions. It's expected the House could tweak it to protect certain programs and rein in some of Quinn's powers. An outstanding question is if the House will borrow money to make a $4 billion public pension payment, or skip the payment altogether. Democratic Representative Ken Dunkin of Chicago says either are better than taking money from social services and education.
"Some of us simply are not looking at reality," Dunkin said. "The reality is if you're in a jam, at this level, and this is a rare occasion for us to be in such significant deficit, borrowing or suspending payment to one year is not a bad option."
Also unclear if is there will be support to pass a cigarette tax hike to help fund schools. Democrats -- who control the legislature -- are aiming to finish before the end of the month. Thereafter, passing a budget will be tougher because some Republicans will need to get on board.
The University of Illinois' Board of Trustees has approved a $620,000 salary for the school's new president, and a 9.5% increase in tuition. The board approved the measures on a voice vote Thursday afternoon. Earlier, protesters marched outside the board's meeting, demanding that new President Michael Hogan be paid only $450,000 annually. Hogan's salary is $170,000 more than that received by his predecessor, B. Joseph White.
On the tuition increase, Interim President Stanley Ikenberry says budget cuts and employee furloughs weren't enough to balance the budget. "But students also are going to need to share a portion of the load," said Ikenberry. "Asking them to share at basically an inflationary rate is, I think, a good balance policy that's fair to students and other groups within the university." For incoming students, tuition will go up $902 dollars per year to $10,386 at the Urbana campus, $792 a year to $9,134 at the Chicago campus, and $706 per year to $8,108 at the Springfield campus.
Ikenberry also said at the meeting that Hogan deserves the higher salary. Ikenberry says Hogan's salary puts him in the middle of the pay scale for Big Ten presidents. He says Hogan has "superb academic credentials.
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